The British colonization of Africa was a protracted, complicated cruelty whose ramifications still affect Africans today.
Western ways supplanted centuries-old native traditions, wiping away tribal life. “The Convert” examines the negative impact of European “progress.”
In 1890s Rhodesia, Catholic priest Chilford (Leroy McClain) strives to assimilate into encroaching British culture. He acquiesces to housekeeper Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and adds her niece Jekesai (Pascale Armand) to the house staff, saving her from an unwanted marriage. He dresses her, renames her and demands she renounce native traditions in favor of an Anglo-Christian lifestyle. When the native population rebels against its masters, the household is caught between an outdated past and a violent future.
Danai Gurira’s script accurately portrays the insidiousness of the colonial machine, and the myriad religious and socio-economic tactics conquerors used to enforce change. She also demonstrates the way dysfunction trickles down, how the conquered must exploit those underneath them. Educated Prudence (Zainab Jah) defies tribal tradition only to discover she has no place in the modern world she has embraced; her fiancé Chancellor (Kevin Mambo) embraces the new world order only to suffer native backlash. It’s a violent cycle that has only begun to turn.
Each ensemble member has his or her devastating moment; Jah captures Prudence’s frustration with her lack of opportunity in the new Rhodesia; Mambo brings seething menace and threat into the household, the consequence of his mistreatment. But the showstopper is Armand, who makes the most pronounced turnaround absolutely believable. Director Emily Mann’s traditional staging on Daniel Ostling’s conservative set doesn’t push any envelopes but manages to enhance the script. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design makes pretty pictures of a tragic story.
“The Convert” runs through March 25. Purchase tickets by calling the box office at 312 443-3800 or at goodmantheatre.org.