AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Danai Gurira
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
Presented by Marin Theatre Company
Boyer Theatre
397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, CA / (415) 388-5208

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Irony ultimately rules in "The Convert," presented in its Bay Area premiere by Marin Theatre Company.

Danai Gurira sets her play in Salisbury, Rhodesia, (present day Harare, Zimbabwe,), between 1895 and 1897. A young African woman, Jekesai (Katherine Renee Turner), is taken to the home of Chilford (Jabari Brisport) by her cousin, Tamba (JaBen Early). Because Tamba's mother, Mai Tamba (Elizabeth Carter), works there as a maid, Tamba hopes that Jekesai can find refuge from her uncle (L. Peter Callender) who would force her to marry a much older man, whom she despises.

Chilford is an African who has renounced his tribal heritage and become a lay Roman Catholic minister trying to convert other Africans. He changes Jekesai's name to Ester. She comes to embrace Catholicism and to join him in his missionary work.

Over time, however, the natives begin to rebel against the white English settlers who have repressed them. Violence follows on both sides.

Chancellor (Jefferson A. Russell), warns Chilford that their fellow Africans regard him and other converts as traitors. Chancellor's fiancee, Prudence (Omoze Idehenre), urges Ester to be her own woman.

Although Ester is presumably the title character, Chilford, too, is a convert, and both become increasingly conflicted between their new faith and their tribal traditions. Tragedy ensues.

Playwright Gurira, who was born in the United States to Zimbabwean parents and reared in Zimbabwe, is a promising young playwright. However, this nearly three-hour play could benefit from judicious pruning to reduce it from three acts and two intermissions to two acts and one intermission.

MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis directs the outstanding cast, eliciting strong performances from everyone. The simple set is by Nina Ball with lighting by Gabe Maxson. Fumiko Bielefeldt designed the mix of Western and African costumes. The music and sound are by Chris Houston.

Dialect coach Lynne Soffer deserves credit for the accents, which are usually understandable if one listens carefully. Julia Chigamba, a native Zimbabwean, served as cultural consultant and guest vocal artist.

Despite its length, "The Convert" makes for fascinating drama while shedding light on a part of African history that probably is unfamiliar to most Americans.

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