The Convert

Written By Danai GuriraThe Goodman Theatre, The Convert logo

Directed by Emily Mann

At Goodman Theatre, Chicago

You can’t always go home again.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus informs his followers, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-38) This sentiment runs deep in The Goodman Theatre’s The Convert, set in 1890’s colonial South Africa (what is now Zimbabwee). The sword becomes literal and figurative, rending families, tribes and identities with schisms that persist in the area to the present day.

The collision of tidal concepts is reduced and magnified into a few seemingly simple relationships. A young girl (Pascale Armand) escapes her village and arranged marriage, seeking refuge with her housemaid aunt Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce). Her master, the would-be Jesuit and self-identified “former savage” Chilford (Leroy McClain), is moved by the plight as Mai Tamba pleads to have her niece taken in under the guise of converting to Christianity. Moved by the plea and promise, Chilford takes the young girl in and quickly renames her “Ester” in the first of many steps she must now make to divorce herself from her “barbaric” past. But what begins as a ploy for sympathy becomes a seemingly ideal calling for young Ester. She quickly proves a brilliant protege, embracing her new Christian life and instructor. Change won’t come without growing pains, and the hypocrisy between Christian ideals and their execution threaten the blossoming apprentice’s sense of self. The gulf between her former life and her new savior—both Chilford and Jesus—request sacrifices and betrayals she’s not entirely willing to make. Brimming social tensions far outside either’s control are going to force her to make them, however, and the consequences are an answer to the question of whether anyone can ever truly change.

While Chilford (LeRoy McClain) tries to calm Uncle (Harold Surratt) and Kuda (Warner Miller), Mai Kuda (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) holds back Jekesai/Ester (Pascale Armand) during an argument in the world-premiere co-production of The Convert by Danai Gurira, directed by Emily Mann.

Another couple of “former savages” who are climbing the social ladder give a haunting look at a potential future for Chilford and Ester. Prudence (Zainab Jah) is now a well-educated woman engaged to an intellectually inferior Chancellor (Kevin Mambo). They’re a power couple aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and a dark look at what occurs when cynicism and self-hatred blossom into a false artifice that can no longer be dismantled. Since Chilford’s conversion partially stems from despising his past and embracing these white “saviors,” they provide a necessary counterpoint to his innocent optimism.

As the arc of transmutation distorts into a circle, the story threatens but only fleetingly falls prey to the overwrought. The tour de force cast of seven command the stage with a regal presence that infuses each moment with a profundity that would collapse a lesser cast. Armand and McClain in particular shine. Their stately chemistry churns with an understated spiritual resonance that electrifies their interactions.

A reliably beautiful setpiece recalls The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio. The stark tenebrism reinforces the atmosphere of a desire for absolutes in a world of uncertainty. Brisk pacing and adroit direction make The Convert‘s longer than average run-time feel necessary for the deepening of our sympathies for these people. Roman Catholicism, British Empiricism and racism are almost beside the point as the story pulls us past -isms and into these portraits of people with vast depths of inner conflict searching for any stable point to drop anchor. Each one’s journey is a transformation parable, illustrating what can happen when the path of conversion reaches an inevitable breaking point of no return.

Highly Recommended.

Clint May

Date Reviewed: March 6,  2012

For more info checkout The Convert page on www.goodmantheatre.org

At Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL; call 312.443.3800 or visit www.goodmantheatre.org; tickets $12-42 (student & group discounts available); performances Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm; running time 3 hours 15 minutes with 2 10 minute intermissions; through March 25.