Underground Railway's "Convert": What's In a Name?

Adobuere Ebiama & Maurice Emmanuel Parent in "The Convert"
(photo: A. R. Sinclair Photography)

When a character is called“bafu” (“traitor”) in Underground Railway Theatre's production of The Convert by Obie Award-winning playwright Danai Gurira (In the Continuum), one doesn't need a translation (and none is given). The play was influenced by Shaw's Pygmalion, which is apparent in its content (its depiction of social stratification) and form (a welcome old-fashioned three-act work). It's the first part of a proposed cycle of plays about Zimbabwe. Gurira herself, though born in Iowa, grew up in Zimbabwe, just as her main character Jekesai (Adobuere Ebiama) does. Just how much Gurira identifies with her heroine's story is indicated by the fact that Jekesai is the playwright's middle name. It should be noted that there are scenes in the Shona language, untranslated. Not to worry, as the context makes everything reasonably clear. Gurira's themes have to do with humanity, especially the cultural structures that race, gender and religion impose upon a vanquished people, and how these affect concepts of ownership, cultural identity, right and wrong, even moral ideals. While the story she relates is specific to place and time, it's at heart a universal issue.

The play takes place in 1895 in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), in which the young Shona woman Jekesai, escaping from an arranged marriage to a man with ten wives via her conversion to Christianity, is taken in by her aunt Mai Tamba (Liana Asim), housekeeper to the Christian missionary Chilford (Maurice Emmanuel Parent). Her story involves Chilford's long-ago schoolmate Chancellor (Equiano Mosieri) and Chancellor's well-assimilated fiancee Prudence (Nehassaiu deGannes), as well as Jekesai's Uncle (Paul S. Benford Bruce) and cousin Tamba (Ricardy Charles Fabre). Jekesai is given a new name, Ester, derived from the Old Testament character of Esther (who, as Ester is reminded by her cousin, declared “I will go to the king though it is against the law...and if I perish, I perish”, words that will eventually come to haunt Ester). But it's not just the name she is given that reinvents her; with this new name comes a lot of other baggage. As Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian notes in the program: “Rhodesia was founded, and ruled for nearly a century, as a colonial white settler state”, even instituting a “hut tax”, which essentially destroyed the country's economy based on livestock ownership and made the native population dependent on the victorious British. Gurira has stated that, when researching her country's history, she “really started to notice the question, who owns the history, whose version or interpretation gets voice?”. As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said, “history is written by the victors”.

The first inkling that all's not well assimilated is when Ester has to choose whether to honor a dead relative in the Shona traditional kurova guva, in which the dead are addressed and welcomed as ancestors. Chilford vehemently opposes this, as she is considered by him to be his first true protegee. There are further chinks in the armor, with references to cement floors being better than cow dung, some malapropisms in the conversion process (Mia Timba on two occasions prays “Hail Mary, full of ghosts”, or Chilford's repeated “goodness of gracious”), and some ominous portents, such as Ester's being scolded for correcting the local white priest. There are a number of subtle gestures, such as the wearing of shoes, or not, that convey the cultural clashes that are at war here. After some dramatic incidents, ultimately Ester rediscovers her birth name, determined to reinvent herself yet again, declaring that “Jekesai” means “to illuminate”. As Chilford had earlier told Ester: “In time you will learn whom your true family it is...God giveth us that right to pick our earthly family, as Jesus did with his disciples. I picked. That is how. Are you in understanding?” But her final choice is not what he anticipated, for it's central to this character's evolution that she continue to strive to effect change in the world.

Despite the length of the work (nearly three hours including two intermissions), it's a truly compelling story, largely due to the acting of the entire ensemble. Ebiama is impressively strong and Parent continues to display seemingly endless versatility. Mosieri, Asim, Bruce and Fabre are all completely believable. And deGannes is fascinating to watch with her exquisite attention to detail (such as her pointedly extended pinky at teatime). Despite some momentary melodramatic excesses, Sandberg-Zakian has fashioned a terrifically engrossing production. The creative team excels, from the Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland-Lord, the Lighting Design by Devorah Kengmana, Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo and Sound Design by Nathan Leigh.

At the play's end, it may seem on the surface that there is no justice or even vengeance to be had. Yet one has the sense that these people will, as Sanberg-Zakian has written, “continue to live forward in profound faith, subversive dissent, righteous rage, and persistent hope”; as Gurira continues her cycle, one might be forgiven impatience to see how it all works out.

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