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Danai Gurira’s The Convert

Religiosity in Cecil’s Rhodesia

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Danai Gurira’s The Convert is an almost precise parallel to Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart (1958).  Achebe’s masterpiece—describing the initial encounter between Africans and Europeans in a remote Nigerian village—is set in the final decade of the nineteenth century.  Gurira’s unforgettable drama takes place in Salisbury (Rhodesia) during the last few years of the 1890s.  Both are focused on the influence that Christianity makes on traditional animism, undermining it and destroying century-old beliefs and practices.  The one major difference between the two works (other than literary form, novel vs. drama) is that Achebe includes in his narrative a number of European characters, while Gurira ups the ante and only has Africans in her cast of seven.   The current Woolly Mammoth production of The Convert, in Washington, D.C., excels in superb ensemble acting, and although it may be impossible for you to see the production, the script (which is in every way as readable as the production is viewable) is available by mail for $10.00.

It is a stroke of genius on Gurira’s part to focus exclusively on Africans.  This is possible because the damage, you could argue, has already been done.  When the play opens, there are three characters entering the stage: a young man and a girl, at the back of a house and, simultaneously, a much older woman, who is the young man’s mother, dressed in a housekeeper’s uniform. She admits the two younger characters through the door at the back of the one-room set.  The home, we are told, was once owned by British missionaries who bequeathed it to Chilford Ndlovu, a catechist for the Catholic Church.  The room itself is stuffed with Victorian furniture, including a desk and a crucifix on the wall.  The imported objects tell us as much as we need to know about its occupant (whom we have yet to encounter) and his fixation on all things European at the expense of anything resembling traditional Africa.

Jekesai, the girl, who is sixteen or seventeen, is bare-breasted, as is her male companion, Tamba.  His mother, Mai Tamba, is a bit of a charlatan, with knowledge of only the basic pretenses of the Catholic faith.  She has been employed by Chilford apparently because of her smattering of English (some of it to the audience’s utter delight because she is likely to spew forth such Catholic dogma as “Hair Mary, fur of ghosts—” or “The Rord is with thee,” though the three characters speak in Shona, as much as in English, until Chilford appears on stage.

There’s an elaborate back-story mentioned at the beginning of the play.  Jekesai’s father has died and her uncle insists—according to tradition—that she is now his daughter.  The problem for Jekesai is that her uncle (who will appear several times in the play) wants to marry her off to a much older man, which has become the reason for her flight to Mai Tamba, her aunt, and the Catholic Church.  Mai Tamba quickly wraps the young girl in a shabby full-length dress, thus covering her breasts, and waits for the arrival of her employer, Chilford.  By the time he enters, the young man has left the stage.  What will follow immediately is Mai Tamba’s argument that Chilford should employ Jekesai because she is interested in learning about Jesus (a fabrication) and a hard-worker (yet to be seen).  Mai Tamba knows how to get what she wants by constantly manipulating Chilford’s need to gain more converts for the Church.  The latter need is more than self-serving because the catechist believes that if he is successful with his proselytizing that he will become the Catholic Church’s first ordained priest in Southern Africa.

Chilford Ndlovu is in no way a charlatan, a quack, even an opportunist.  He’s a true believer in the faith.  We never observe him wearing anything other than a suit and tie.  His English is precise, other than an occasional malapropism. Each day he sits at his desk and writes an account of his activities to the Bishop.  He is orderly, “a man of great deliberation and precision,” trying to be as European as possible—at the sake of severing all of his ties with his family, with his past.  Much later in the play he will be described as a “Bafu,” (a traitor to his race, “a white man’s native”). In short, he’s a good native—one Europeans can trust to follow their dictates.  Although later in her play, Gurira hints at a source for Chilford’s transformation (his father was a witch doctor), she makes little of that revelation—or do we ever witness any genuine mental unrest or doubt on his part.

The Convert

The first scene of act one moves on to Chilford’s decision to employ Jekesai, but first he feels the urgency to give her a Biblical name, Ester.  Scenes two and three show us just how rapidly Jekesai, now Ester, accepts the teaching of the church and her education.  She’s a quick study and it is appropriate to mention that this play that will ultimately end tragically unfolds with a comic first act.  Gurira, in publicity about her, has mentioned the influence of George Bernard Shaw on her work.  In The Convert, that influence is specifically Pygmalion.  Thus, there are some Shavian scenes when Chilford teaches Ester how to pronounce difficult vowels and constantans.  There are two other characters: Chancellor, Chilford’s boyhood friend, who has turned into an operator, a profligate seducer of young woman, who (because of his English) works as a translator for people who run the country’s mines.  In Act One, he’s mostly there for comic relief.  And, finally, there is Chancellor’s fiancée, Prudence, who has had more Western education than any other character in the play.  But that’s enough of the story.

What is more relevant—and this is the core of Gurira’s tragedy—is the way she confronts Christianity among those who are already converted (and that includes Ester).

In the next two acts, there are multiple references to a rebellion within the African population, beginning in Bulawayo, Rhodesia’s second largest city, two hundred miles away.  Whites have been murdered in their houses.  Attempts to put the revolt down have been unsuccessful.  Chancellor warns Chilford about this, tells him that he is particularly vulnerable because African converts to Christianity, known as bafu, are also being killed. If the revolt spreads to Salisbury, Chilford may become one of the targets.  Soon, Ester also becomes vulnerable, because of her success in gaining additional converts for the Church.  She is, in fact, more successful than Chilford.

One example will suffice.  In a brief scene which almost becomes a parody of her earlier renaming, Ester attempts to rename Tamba, giving him a new Christian name, Phinehas. Tamba’s response is direct and brutal: “…you are lost. Forgetting the ways of your peopo.  Loving on the whites.  What good are they doing eh?  Bringing, this Jesas.  You say he give and give till he die.  What ara they giving eh?  They ara teking end teking and you want to love them for that?  I work in Beatrice Mine, EVERY DAY they mek me work for little little money for what?  Before they come, we neva work like this, for this thing, digging end digging rike our arms they are not of our own.  Onry digging for food for our families. Now we do what they say because we need these monies they bring to GIVE BEK TO THEM in the hut tex to live in a smar hut and they are riving in BIIIG houses they mek US build.  Then they say—‘Oh—here is this God who is coming from they sky to mek you crean from a sin—you love on him end be happy.  Oh—and onry one wife for one men.’  End you love them?  You ara a bafu end a fool cousin.  End YOU, you must rememba who it is you are before too late.  End I will NEVA want this.”

Blood will be spilled by the end of The Convert, as Africans turn against Africans.  There will be painful testing of the true faith of the converted in Gurira’s careful plotting, a slowly building crescendo to her complex three-hour long drama.  Moreover, in the current Woolly Mammoth flawless production (running until March 10th), there isn’t a week actor.  Nancy Moricette shines as Jekesai/Ester, both in her innocent, comic origins and her complex reasoning in the final scenes of Act Three, where she dominates the action.  She’s particularly engaging when she enters the stage at the beginning of Act One.  She tiptoes around the Victorian parlor, touching and smelling objects she’s never seen before.  She can’t understand why dung has not been used for the floor instead of the strange substance known as concrete.  Her complexity by the play’s conclusion is extraordinary, belying a gifted young actor at the beginning of a major career.

Irungu Mutu (Chilford) is also superlative—intentionally stiff and awkward in his piety and, also, in his growth, an altered character by the end of the play.  He has a demanding role to play, with a hint of repressed anger as he mouths such lines as “You have been bringing witchcraft INTO MY HOUSE!” His childhood friend (Alvin Keith), Chancellor, is an African trickster with memorable duplicity, hustle and bustle.  Starla Benford (as Mai Tamba) excels in her demanding role as unappreciated housekeeper.  She’s an elegant older woman in total command of her many talents.  Tamba (JaBen Early), Uncle (Erik Kilpatrick), and Prudence (Dawn Ursula) shine in their respective roles, especially Ursula who had a major role in the Woolly Mammoth’s production of Clybourne Park several years ago.

The direction by Michael John Garcés is impeccable, but imaginative, reaching the standards many of us are accustomed to expect at Woolly Mammoth.  Above all, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company should be complimented for staging cutting-edge dramas, taking risks with young playwrights and new plays.  The Convert has had a number of productions with other theatre companies.  Danai Gurira’s earlier play, Eclipsed, was also staged by Woolly Mammoth four years ago (see my review in CounterPunch, Sept. 18, 2009).   Perhaps some will think this statement is premature, but  Gurira (born in Iowa but raised in Zimbabwe) has already proven herself as Africa’s next major playwright, a worthy successor to Nigeria’s Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, who currently holds that distinction.

Danai Gurira: The Convert

Directed by Michael John Garcés.  With Starla Benford, Nancy Moricette, Irungu Mutu, JaBen Early, Alvin Keith, Erik Kilpatrick, and Dawn Ursula.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Feb. 13 – March 10, 2013), 641 D Street, NW., Washington, D.C. 20004.  Phone: (202) 393-3939.

Text: 153 pp., $10.00.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.