The Conversation on Race Moves to Africa – THE CONVERT

David Mamet’s RACE continues to play strongly with another 8 performances to go before its close on March 17. There’s a wonderful feature this week on director John Vreeke in The Washington Blade. It’s a point of pride for us to be featured as a home theater for John along with Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where John is a company member, as he’s been a Resident Director with us throughout the past decade. 480935_10152612438560543_746409452_nJohn first started at Theater J in 2001 directing BORN GUILTY (which garnered Helen Hayes Award nominations the next year for Outstanding Direction and Outstanding Resident Production). John was back a year later with Ariel Dorfman’s DEATH AND THE MAIDEN and then directed our co-production with Woolly Mammoth of Tony Kushner’s HOMEBODY KABUL.

Jennifer Mendenhall and Rick Foucheux in Tony Kushner's HOMEBODY/KABUL

Jennifer Mendenhall and Rick Foucheux in Tony Kushner’s HOMEBODY/KABUL

All really important shows for us. So here’s the salute–and the long overdue feature–to John.

We take our conversation on Race over to Woolly to consider their latest production, Danai Gurira’s THE CONVERT.

Nancy Moricette as Jekesai/Ester and JeBen Early as Tamba in Danai Gurira's THE CONVERT at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

Nancy Moricette as Jekesai/Ester and JeBen Early as Tamba in Danai Gurira’s THE CONVERT at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

A three hour and ten minute evening in three acts. How’d it fare by our student subscribers? How does it complement the month-long inquiry into Race and Class we’ve been convening on a weekly basis? Washington’s been providing quite the primer for us!


46 thoughts on “The Conversation on Race Moves to Africa – THE CONVERT

  1. I’m sitting in a coffee shop with the espresso machines whirling and the college students pounding their laptops, each finger and its pace ringing out in my ear as if individually caffeinated.

    I’m sitting here and reflecting on the plays we’ve seen, the themes we’ve covered, the breadth of acting and production talent we’ve witnessed, and the trajectory of our interpretations of such works of art – a trajectory I previously would have completely been oblivious to.

    I’m thinking about the themes that have recurred, and none is more prevalent than that of the complex relationship and its effects on the dynamic of the situation at hand. In “Race,” it’s a law firm with the dynamic of two different races – aptly, white and black. In “GlenGarry,” it’s a hierarchy of personalities and statures of career, each with his own distinctive vernacular at expressing their chauvinistic views, but the personalities override the characters in a way that lent confusion to many on this very blog.

    I’m reflecting on last night in relation to these past plays, and Wooly Mammoth Theater Company’s “The Convert” is no exception – the characters each have goals – whether it is to convert someone, to remain ‘unconverted,’ to find Jesus, or to find themselves, their goals are played out in the first act. Clocking in at 185 minutes including intermission, throughout its course I was able to analyze myself. I’m a Jewish kid from a suburb of Los Angeles with seemingly no relation to Esther, to Higgins, to the characters in this play.

    I’m remembering that they want to find themselves, they want to hold tight to their identity (through religion), and convince others that their way is the right way. This is a more complex issue than, in my opinion, meets the eye, and therefore the prevailing thematic element and takeaway for me is that of self-identity, of expression, and of successful and productive relationships or lack thereof.

    When they name the last-introduced character, we learn she is Eliza, and is represented by Prudence: With this theme of identity and of struggle at its core, the character of Prudence is coming to terms with the notion that her years of education mean nothing in terms of power or autonomy.

    She wears elegant outfits, knows precisely the number of sugar cubes to put in her tea, smokes from a pipe, and her Queen’s English would make Patrick Stewart’s ears bleed with embarrassment. Hers is a conflict of hierarchy, but in more blunt terms, a conflict of gender – she can climb as many ladders as she tries – but she remains a woman.

    This relates eloquently to all of us, in that we are who we are – we have faults, we have strengths. IF Ari Roth taught theater (which he does), I’d say we were fortunate and unknowing students trying to impress him, both sides with roles to play. If Professor Roth taught astrobiology, the roles would be completely reversed. I’d say this play was strong, except that I had such intense personal difficulty with both the gender discrimination (leading up to an onstage rape scene 8 feet from where we were sitting), that it was too difficult to relate to some of the intricacies of the plot. That said, with a focus on identity – we are all missing something, all looking for more, searching for solace, and fighting with who we are – thematic elements anyone can and should relate to.

  2. One of the major themes of “The Convert” is the reconciliation of tribal traditions and Christianity, along with their respective manifestations in society, to find a balance of beliefs. Notably, no one actually successfully accomplishes this by the end of the play. Mai Tamba only feigns Christianity for her employment, keeping her true alliances hidden beneath the surface, before giving the façade up entirely and returning to her village and former garb. Jekesai herself is torn for much of the show between her family and her future, often forced into sacrificing the former for the latter. Jekesai’s struggle results in her murder of the Coulters in the aftermath of her cousin’s death when she realizes that for all of her Christian education, she cannot save her important family member. Although she finds inner peace and accepts her crime and eventual punishment, anything that results in another’s death cannot be considered a successful balance. Prudence seemed to be the only one who was confident in balancing those two parts of her identities, being both an upper member of this new society and proudly talking in the vernacular. Yet she too chooses to return to tradition at the end of the play, not wanting to place trust in this new system of ideals that has only demeaned her and her efforts.

    Curiously, it is the man who was following Christianity almost blindly that has a hope at reaching a harmony of African and Christian ideology. Chilford spends almost the entire play embracing anyone that expresses interest in conversion and rebuffing any infringement on what he views to be the sacredness of Christianity with no grey area in between. Despite how Jekesai only initially accepts Christianity on his word that Jesus saved her from being forced into marriage, he views her as a possible protégé. Meanwhile, Chilford casts away his entire past and relationship with his father, a witch doctor, and expects her to do the same. Chilford also believes that anyone can be guided to the light of Christ, but any time he feels betrayed, such as when Mai Tamba’s traditional wards are revealed or when he receives news of Father Helms’ death, he hypocritically lashes out like a child and reverts to his most basic insult: savage. Within him is the sharpest embodiment of the conflict between African tradition and Christianity.

    However, perhaps by observing the other characters’ murky struggles with identity, he realizes that the African tradition cannot be so easily discarded. After Jekesai kills the Coulters, he chooses to protect her. He chooses to absolve her of her sins, provide her of the resources to escape, and sit with her in the incredibly moving final moments of the play, learning the vernacular words to the songs. That stillness and acceptance indicates hope for Chilford and his new church as a peaceful equilibrium of tradition and Christianity. Arguably, he is the convert the title of the show refers to.

    • Mary-I really like your post and what you have to say about the difficulties of balancing different identities. I agree that Prudence was maybe the only one who found some balance. I do not, however, agree with what you wrote about Chilford. The play did not really hint toward one way or another, but I don’t think he really had a chance at reaching a harmony of African and Catholic culture and ideology. I don’t see how he could find balance of his past African culture when he had turned away from it for so long. Who from his former life would have accepted him?

      • I think the play makes a very strong statement that Chilford has changed in the end. He goes from banning the use of the vernacular within his household to singing along with Jekesai. It is easy to simplify Chilford because he seems to operate in extremes and in black white; however, his overly harsh assertions come off as acts of denial and repression. Turning away from his African culture was a form of suffering for him. And the point is not that he is returning to people from his former life, but building a new life and a new church by combining elements of Christianity and African tradition, as Jekesai tells him to. He has suffered so many disappointments and losses that there is nothing holding him back- the two figures most strongly tying him to Christianity and colonial society, Father Helms and Chancellor, are dead, and the righteous court system he spent the third act defending has proven to be corrupt.

        What did you interpret the final scene as meaning?

  3. I am having a hard time to express my feelings towards this play. It is quite SPECIAL!

    In terms of the content, it’s far away from my cultural background, so it was really difficult for me to follow the dialogues; neither could I put myself into the scenes. I was sitting in a very lucky spot, in where the praying spot was located in the play. Every time they pray, I got to see those actors very clearly.

    I was consistently shocked by many of the scenes, for instance, the fights at the very beginning between Uncle and Mai Tamba over Jekesai; the unpleasant scene of Chancellor forcing Jekesai; the fighting scene between Uncle, Tamba, and Chancellor; as well as the last scene of Jekesai showing her bloody white dress… They were all shocking. However, the acting skills of those actors are undeliverable. I was so surprised by the actors’ abilities to fully express these huge collisions of religions as well as culture. The acting for ALL the actors was FASCINATING!!!!!!!INCREDIBLE!!!! When I raised my head and watched the last scene when Jekesai/ Ester was making her confessions and telling the story of what was happened when her cousin was killed, I was filled with tears as I saw her tears was coming out from her eyes and falling down her face. That was so touching.

    I think the play in general did show a very important theme that could connect to my personal experience—one could hardly be CONVERTED no matter how hard you have learned to adopt another culture as long as you are physically embraced by that cultural environment. I believe things would be quite different if Jekesai was living in Christian countries.
    In terms of religions, I was raised in the country that advocates atheism and Communism. Biology book tells us what’s evolution; History book tells us how Communism Party and National Party fought together with Japanese army, and then how National Party betrayed us and how we won over them. Political Science book tells what atheism is and why people should believe in atheism, and how great Communism is. Those are part of the things that we have been taught in China from elementary school to high school. For me, Communism is not a term that contains any negative meanings. Actually, we don’t even mention the term Communism in our daily lives because that’s the thing everyone was taught and admit. And whenever I hear my American friends saying that “Communism is….”, I don’t feel I’m really connected to that word although all of them are actually think China equals to Communism. I don’t think there is really a conflict in religions for me because I am able to put myself into the category that “I’m an atheism but I believe God exist”.
    What really appear to me as a cultural shock—though it’s off the topic, but I really want to share a little bit, so please bear with me—are the differences between collectivism and individualism. Collectivism always tells us to be considerate because you are living in the society other than the society is composed by people like you; individual voices could hardly be heard in collectivist society like China, simple because of the enormous population. Then we gradually adopt the ideology of being normal and average is a good thing. In Chinese culture, one never question anyone for anything in class because they think that’s waste of other people’s time, if one have question, he or she will meet the professor individually; one never ask question also because they don’t want to be considered as STUPID if they ask the question that other think not as a question. However, in the U.S., not having questions seems like you’re not thinking; and people expect your questions in class because they might have the same questions or professor can save time by answer one for all. From this minor point we can see how different the ideology approaches are.

    Now back to the topic.
    About the word Savage, I think it has been well developed during the play. Tamba and Uncle were portrait as “Savages” because they uses more physical expressions and most of the time, in an inappropriate ways. However, till the end, when Tamba was killed by white people—who should be civilized— because of his savage, without having explained what were happened, made me doubt who the savage really was.

    Besides, about the word Shame, I feel like it’s also related to the “shame” in RACE at certain level too. Till now, I still couldn’t quite understand what the word “shame” means in African American community. Is that about the fact of being dark in this white country? Or it’s because being black but adopting white cultures, which ruined the original black cultures? I know in this play, it’s the latter one because when Mai Tamba said “Shame!!” to Jekesai, I could clearly feel that she meant that, and I couldn’t help to stand on Zimbabwean point of view, to think about them. I think no matter it’s British colonized South Africa, or British tried to colonized China, it’s all about the power of the countries. If English people won over Chinese, China now would absolutely be one of British colonies and is adopting Christianity; or, if Chiang Kai-shek (the former leader of National Party) succeed Mao Zedong (the founder of People’s Republican of China), then China now is capitalism. It’s just all about the power of those countries. Not necessary either it’s good or bad, right or wrong. As the playwright says, “who we are today is how we are affected by what happened back then.”

    Thank you

    • Jingru, I completely agree with you that the acting throughout the play was very powerful. Throughout the play the actor’s ability to infuse the audience with emotion was unparalleled with the other shows we have seen. Reading your blog post on your elementary school education in China was very interesting, especially your comment on not viewing communism negatively. I think in the United States we tend to impose our ideal on other country and are quick to judge. That said there is no question that capitalism is the greatest creator of wealth the world has ever seen. While there is no doubt that capitalism makes individual’s inequality wealthy, it is a rising tide that raises all boats. I was also fascinated by the differences in culture in regards to asking questions in class. I’m wondering which style you like better.

      • lol. Hi Brain. Thank you for reading my long comment. Still, as I mentioned in my blog, I think the term Communism is just as the term Race when appears to Chinese people, we have seldom interactions with that because we are living under that system and we are all Chinese (same race). I think it’s shocked for me when I first came here, seeing these diversities and being taught that RACE is always the one of the topics that would never go off the table.
        In terms of the asking questions, me myself, I still don’t have the nerve to raise my hands and speak up during the class and many times I feel like if I ask, I may be taking up other people’s time. So I always wait until the class finish and go ask the professor individually; or even more, I may just email him instead because our class always ends very late, and I think by emailing him, he can just reply whenever he has time.
        But I like to hear other students’ questions because often times they are my questions too, but the way you guys express the questions are much more effective than I would do because of the language.

    • Jingru-

      What a fantastic analysis! I’m glad you focused on breaking down specific events of the play–it was great to read your view on it after I talked about my personal reflection of the play. I also was curious about the use of the word “savage.” I found it really demeaning and insensitive. I like how you talked about how white people are supposed to be portrayed as civilized, but they are responsible for the gruesome killing of Tamba. So what makes someone “civilized?”

      I also really appreciate your overall connection of “The Covert,” “Race,” and your own personal experiences. I think it is important to remember that every culture has different beliefs and that it is impossible for us to determine which is right and which is wrong. You drew a connection between the British trying to force capitalism on the Chinese, and I thought it was another very interesting way to bring our class themes together. I also thought your idea about individualism and collectivism was very interesting. Where do we find the balance between the two? I think it is so important to be an individual and to embrace the things that make you unique as a person, but I also believe in collectivism. Sometimes we have to think about people as a whole and do what is in the best interest for the common good. But then how do we decide who the common good is? Very thought provoking.

  4. The play “The Convert” was an intriguing look at the effects that colonialism had in the past on people and not just in the present, which is a lot of what you learn about now.

    There were three types of people in the play: those who were trying to fully assimilate into the Western culture, those who completely rejected the culture and chose to follow African customs, and those who assimilated into white culture but still respected their African customs and language. Which path was the most ideal to follow? I definitely disagreed with the minister who completely assimilated into white culture, however, I had little regard for the traditional African culture that was going to marry Jekesai/ Ester off to be the tenth wife of a man twice her age. Although it still had its drawbacks, assimilating while still retaining high regard for your mother tongue and culture seemed like the best option in this case. While Prudence was highly educated and still had a good sense of who she was through her African culture, she was “damned” anyway because the white culture still had no respect for her brown skin.

    It was interesting to me how this play can still be and is relevant today. When I travelled to Tanzania last May, I got many chances to talk to the citizens there and to observe the social culture. While everyone in Tanzania speaks Swahili and it is their first language, learning/knowing English makes you more of an elite, as everyone there has varying commands of the English language. The more educated you are there, the better your English will be (generally). The Tanzanians also had a slight fascination with me because I looked like them but was a master of the “white man’s language.”

    While I sensed a deep pride among Tanzanians for their African culture, I also sensed an admiration for those able to assimilate with the Europeans—for example, the national languages of Tanzania are Swahili and English. In addition to Swahili and English, many Tanzanians also speak local dialects from the villages in which they grew up; however, ask a Tanzanian what languages she/he knows and she/he will often point out the European languages first and even leave out the local languages. While I am glad colonialism does not exist like it did in the past, it still saddens me that the social effects are still felt in contemporary society.

    • I appreciated the analysis of the three different types of characters in the play. I definitely agree that the smartest and most respectful option is to assimilate into white culture while keeping a high regard for traditional African languages and customs. Bri’an, I think you make a good point in that both cultures have pros and cons and I’m with you in your opinion that Chilford goes too far in his rejection of African principles, as if he fools himself into thinking that his skin color doesn’t matter and that he can become “white”. Whereas Ester seems to be unaware and incapable of observing and understanding the differences in status, Chilford clearly distinguishes between blacks and whites and the differing opportunities. To completely devote oneself to a cause that looks down on you simply for the color of your skin is a concept that I can’t understand. On the other hand, there’s no way on earth I’d ever accept being traded for a goat, particularly for the expenses of a potbellied, debt-ridden, and seriously sketchy looking uncle.

  5. Although it has been almost 72 hours since we saw the Wooly Mammoth’s production of “The Convert”, I still haven’t fully digested it. As usual, I went into the theater having no idea what to expect. I did know it was going to be a long play however, so I settled in for what I hoped would be an excellent performance.

    This play was in a completely different realm than the other plays we have seen so far. This play was, I feel, the most realistic so far. As soon as Jekesai ran onto the stage half bare skinned, I knew we were in for a really unique experience. Nancy Moricette was so talented that I legitimately forgot during the first few minutes that she does, in fact, understand and speak English. I am seriously wishing we had a post show discussion because I wanted to hear her speak not in character. How. On. EARTH. Did she get such a convincing African tongue/accent/whatever you would like to call it? Serious, serious talent.

    Adding to the realism of the play was the scents used in the production. I think the fact that this play added to the sense experience by using incense and having Chancellor and Prudence smoke really enhanced the play. These are things you will never get from watching a movie obviously. Another aspect that really made this play feel so realistic was honestly, this made sound gross, but the spit coming from the actors mouths and the sweat on their brows. Perhaps I noticed all of these things during this play more than other plays because we had such good seats, but honestly, they made the play feel tangible and concrete.

    Other than Moriecette, who has got to be the most talented actress we can have seen yet, Dawn Ursala as Prudence seriously blew me away. Her character grew on me throughout the play. During the first and second act, Prudence irritated me, but to me, that is the sign of good acting. In the third act, her character completely changed. Prudence was no longer the snobby wealthy woman we saw at the beginning, she instead show us her broken, shattered side. I couldn’t help but feel for her when she discovered all of the women coming forward that her fiancé had cheated on her with, and worse yet, she was carrying his child. The development of Prudence’s character was one of the many elements of the play that made it a fantastic production by a TALENTED group of actors.

    Lastly, the underlying theme was very moving. I believe what Ester said after she committed murder was “we don’t bleed any differently” or something to that effect. Going back to our month long discussion of race, this show took a different view. While “Race” looked at the differences among races, “The Convert” looked at the similarities. I think I appreciated this view better.

    • Sarah, I like your reply and specific notes on production tactics (accents, incense, various scents) used. Realism is as good a tool as any we’ve seen, I think, to allow audiences that ‘brought in’ feeling — that feeling that politicians, actors, rockstars, and community organizers alike all strive for — but few achieve.

      You cannot make a point, or get any assemblance of a point, across without engaging audience — and through these tactics – this play did just that.

      That said, they can deter as well — from the blood during the rape scene to the slightly too-real smoke, I was turned off by some of the brutality, though i revert to stating that it lends an aura of realism which may not be achieved otherwise. Good points, SV.

  6. The convert was most definitely a “special” experience. I’d been warned prior to the play that there was some nudity involved, but I definitely didn’t expect to be confronted with it right as the play started. As a result, I think I paid a little more attention to the set than to the people, until Jekesai put on her dress. Without a doubt, it made me extremely uncomfortable. The conflict in this play is the oppression of the African people under the pretext of promoting Christianity. I fully empathized with the outrage that Jekesai and her aunt felt when the no-good, debt-ridden uncle tried to trade off his niece to be the tenth wife of some old man. However, I fail to understand how that translates into religious faith. I feel like the time lapse between Jekesai’s entry into Chilford’s home and when she became more fluent in English was hard for me to imagine. The transition into the extremely Christian Esther seems highly improbable considering the close proximity of her culture and her aunt, who is not at all discreet about her continued practice of African traditional values. I think Esther’s problem isn’t that she threw away her family, but that she really did act as if she was better than others. For all the airs that she put on as a now-educated woman who supposedly speaks well, she was extremely tactless in situations where I would have chosen my words with much, much greater care. She also confuses situations, and I’m speaking particularly in regards to when Tamba accidentally kills Chancellor. He might not have meant to, but he definitely didn’t do it to save Jekesai from Chancellor. He didn’t even know what was going on, but she blurs the lines between the two situations.

    My two favorite characters were Mai Tamba and Prudence. Mai Tamba elicited such a wide range of emotions, from anger to laughter, and somehow you can’t help liking her. Prudence was more sarcastic and at first, I thought her role would be something along the lines of a stuck up and privileged princess. When she talks to “Esther” about her background, however, I started to realize that she’s actually a lot smarter than she’s given credit for. As she points out, multiple times, “Esther” doesn’t have any personality, not does she have thoughts of her own. I wondered when she would break out of that shell and I almost anticipated some sort of fiery personality to come storming out. What actually happened was that she snapped and killed two innocent people, which to me just seemed like she’d gone off the deeper end. Maybe because the audience only saw a grand total of two interactions between “Esther” and her cousin, one of which ended extremely badly, prior to Chancellor’s murder, but I couldn’t make any sense of her ending decision that “blood” was important, because they didn’t seem that close. After all, she’d chosen multiple times to sacrifice other family members that she seemed much closer to – her father and her aunt, for example.

    I think I saw more of a “conflict” between larger groups of individuals than with the main character. I understood the problems that would arise with clashing cultures and the characters as a group were definitely representative of that. I think Chilford, while symbolic of the disdain of the white people, was too melodramatic as an individual and quite honestly, if I tried to remember him, I’d probably just laugh off the character as a religious fanatic. Jekesai was too inconsistent for me to even consider her realistic or representative, so it took a little stepping back to see the message that this play was supposed to be sending.

    • The circumstance that she chose family over loyalty to Chilford and Christianity was very different than the prior two conflicts. Her father and aunt were facing no bodily harm, and not attending the ritual for his soul to return to the earth or not defending Mai Tamba’s allegiance to African tradition did not have palpable repercussions. However, Chilford was so driven by grief and rage that had Jekesai not intervened on Tamba’s behalf, violence could have broken out. If Tamba had then been killed, either by Chilford’s hand or by Chilford’s choice to turn him into the authorities, imagine how that would have reflected on him, his already dangerous status as a “bafu,” and his church by extension.

      On an emotional level, blood is an identity that you cannot lose. You may change ideologies, professions, or alliances, but you will always be bound to the same people. When a relative is placed in a life-or-death situation, I do not think it really matters if you recently had a serious argument- like you said, we have only seen two interactions of a lifelong relationship. I do not think Jekesai’s “inconsistency” makes her unrealistic; I think it represents how torn she is between two worlds. She placed all of her trust in her Christian education and the established court system to absolve her cousin, and its betrayal was something she could not have even imagined. Combined with Tamba’s death, the fact that she snaps is tragic, but not altogether unexpected.

      In a sad way, it is a fulfillment of the expectations everyone seems to have for the Africans, that they will murder their white employers, but Jekesai subverts that as well by accepting her guilt peacefully. That is her true personality, and that sort of wisdom she exhibits is just as powerful as any fire.

  7. I’ve never been witness to a more powerful, viscerally stirring production in my life. “The Convert” exposed and portrayed the zeitgeist of late 19th century Africa fraught with imperialism and confounded by the imposed influences of the white man. This performance, as raw as one can get, tore open themes of power, fear, betrayal, assimilation, and denial – and explored them through intense racial, sexual, and religious contexts. Historically, this play was set in a moment that exemplifies one of the bloodiest, most tragic cases of geographic and human exploitation in history: that of the continent of Africa by European nations in the mid to late 19th century. As a History and Peace and Conflict Studies major I have studied this era and its atrocities in many classes. I have learned about the white man’s burden, diamond-monger Cecil Rhodes’ Anglo-philic takeover of southern Africa, and the suffering that African men and women faced at the hands of these foreign presences. But seeing this world brought to life on stage, by the courage and power of actors more talented than I thought humanly possible, I was truly blown away.

    On stage, it wasn’t about a nation’s conquest, the ins and outs of any battles, or other historical minutiae. These instead provided a context for human struggle: the difficulty of abandoning one’s family, the powerful appeal of organized faith in chaotic times, the desire to acquire enough education to best fellow Africans and even white foreigners, the futility of revenge when fear prevails, and the inescapability of origins. These themes were illuminated most fascinatingly by Jekesai/Ester and Prudence.

    From the start of the show, Jekesai seemed to be one step ahead of everyone else. She used Chilford and his offer of Christianity as a short-term escape from immediate danger. But throughout the show, she wrestled with the privilege that came with Christianity, her relationship with “the vernacular” and when it was okay to speak it, and what side to take when her old life came head-to-head with her new one. Ultimately, her blood ties were inescapable and even acquired “breeding” could not help her save her cousin. I have trouble finding words to explain the power of her performance. The moments that stood out the most to me were her initial meeting with Chilford, her recitation of Amazing Grace, her attempt to convert Tamba, and, of course, her ultimate tear-and-blood-stained confession.

    Prudence was also a deeply fascinating character. Brilliant and cannily aware of her educational advantage, Prudence is able to understand and navigate her surroundings with a level of precision that her fellow characters lack. She knows when to turn on her ability to “wax poetic”, as she puts it, and when to bring out her native tongue. She is proud both of her origins and her distance from them. It almost seemed as if she wouldn’t be proud of her origins had a privileged fate not befallen her. Her ability to compartmentalize her life and distance herself from her roots allowed her to appreciate them. At the end, it was devastating watching her heart break not only from the death of her husband (of whose many misgivings she was cognizant), but moreover from the failure of her acquired “white” skills to save Tamba from execution.

    I could write about this play all day, but ultimately, I think I will need a few weeks of reflection to fully process it.

    • I agree, I was very impressed with the development of Prudence’s character. Of all the characters in the play, I thought that she added the most complexity and depth. Initially she seems extremely shallow and unconcerned with the issues around her, but you realize throughout the rest of the play how untrue that initial impression is. I was extremely struck by her performance, and I thought that the play was greatly improved by her presence. Without her character, the play would be much less three dimensional. I think that she serves as a very fitting foil to Jekesai, whose naiveté is somewhat exhausting at some points.

    • Alana, I too have never seen a more emotionally stirring and powerful play in my life. What an experience. I don’t think I’m going to be rushing back to the Woolly Mammoth for a second viewing, though – not because I didn’t like the play, but because I don’t think I can so readily handle another intense 3 hours. The craziest (I wish I had a better word, but it really was crazy) part of the play occurred in the “near rape” scene. When Ester was thrown down on the ground, literally inches from my seat (great job with the seating by the way Prof. Roth, I’m pretty sure I had the best seat in the house), I think my heart skipped a beat and I was in shock for perhaps the rest of the play. I’m also glad you brought up – as have many of us – the fascinating character of Prudence. As the play progressed, you just couldn’t quite pin down who she really was. She began as a stuck up, rich woman, progressed into a more feminist role, then she showed how deeply she still cared for her village roots, and finally showed her amazingly merciful side. Each time she was on stage, more and more layers of her kept peeling away, and each time we learned something new about her.

    • I agree with you when you said at the end there that you need a few weeks of reflection to process this play. I still feel like I am digesting all of it! I am really glad that you also brought up the character Prudence. Your wording, “Prudence is able to understand and navigate her surroundings with a level of precision that her fellow characters lack” perfectly describes her. I felt like the whole play that Prudence knew something that we didn’t, which was made her character very intriguing. She seems to be eons ahead of her companions as like you said, she grasps the knowledge of when to use her native tongue, and forth. I agree that it was awful to watch her life that even while she has been living like a “white” person, that her word was not enough to save Tamba. I went from disliking her to having a newfound respect for her in the third act. Glad we both are on the same page!

  8. First of all, I just want to say kudos to the actors, especially the actress who played Jekesai, for having the courage to perform their parts with the maturity and poise that they required. I was very startled at some points during the play because I simply wasn’t expecting the mature content, but the actors were comfortable enough in their roles that I feel that they were able to relieve the audience of some of their discomfort.

    From the start of the play, I was very impressed by the actress who played Jekesai. Without a sound, she was immediately able to convey her character’s history and uncertainty simply by looking at her surroundings, feeling the furniture, and sniffing the floor. Throughout the rest of the play, her portrayal of her character was utterly convincing, from her accent, to her wordless shrieks of excitement, to her body language. I don’t know what her background is in actuality, but if someone told me that she was in fact from Zimbabwe I would not be at all surprised.

    In fact, all of the characters seemed as though their backgrounds were actually that of their characters. I don’t know what language they were speaking, but they seemed to do so almost flawlessly. Everything from the way they walked to their hand gestures appeared genuine.

    Although I thought the acting was superb, I was less impressed by the play itself. It was absorbing, extremely well thought out, and the messages about the clash of cultures were thought provoking. However, it was very, very long. Maybe it’s because I’m a young person with a busy schedule and I’m not accustomed to investing my attention into something for that long, but it seemed to me that the rest of the audience agreed. It was hard for me to stay concentrated and sitting for so long, which subtracted from my ability to appreciate all the good things the play had to offer. It was as though I was watching a very long movie without the methods a movie uses to keep the audience’s attention: a soundtrack, special effects, etc.

    • I was also very moved by the actress playing Jekesai. I was totally unfamiliar with the language, and I think it would have been fascinating to have a post-show discussion with the actors to hear how they spoke out of character. I think her ability to keep us engaged in those early parts of the play when Jekesai is either speaking her native language or not speaking at all proves how talented this actress is. The scene you mentioned when she is first in Chilford’s home was so beautiful. I am so happy that the director allowed her enough time to really investigate the entire room. I could totally relate to her feelings of excitement and fear at being in such a new environment — feelings that were so beautifully displayed without voice.

      My experience with the length of the play was different from your’s. Going into it I expected to lose interest, but I was surprised to find that the play fully held my attention. I think it was actually more interesting than a long movie because the performance was three dimensional. I liked that the stage protruded into the audience, allowing the characters to have a wider range of motion and engage with the viewers. This play also had more action than the others, and I thought that the fight scenes added excitement. And finally, as you pointed out, the acting was just phenomenal. I think by design the play relies heavily on talented actors, and had the cast not been able to truly master their performance the play definitely would have felt too long for me.

    • I agree with both of you about how powerful the actress was who played Jakesai. Everything she did just seemed to in tune and heartfelt. You mention how she was able to convey so much without even making a sound, which I agree was incredible and part of why it was so emotional.

      I’ve also been very impressed with how good the accents have been in the past couple plays we’ve seen. I noticed in this play’s program they give credit to a “dialect coach.” The way people speak is so critical to identity, to culture and background. I appreciated how meticulous the actors were because it helped me feel more immersed in an environment I have never actually been a part of.

      The play was certainly long, though for me, as Katherine mentioned, the acting and plotline kept my attention and interest. At the same time, however, because it was such an emotionally draining play from the very beginning through to the very end it was a challenging three hours.

  9. Danai Gurira’s play “The Convert” at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre was definitely an intense play. The three-hour long performance was able to include an ethical exploration on culture, identity, family, and religion- a lot to take in from a play. In addition to the intimate setting of the show, I felt that the characters were very involved in their acting, which made the experience a lot more realistic for me.

    There was certainly a cultural struggle with the prevalence of colonialism in the founding of Rhodesia (later known as Zimbabwe), as Jekesai showed in the beginning of the play, when she was put in a situation where she could either commit to her family obligations and engage in a pre-arranged marriage, or follow a black missionary and convert into Christianity. Reluctant at first, Jekesai had no idea what the religion was about, but she figured that it was a way out of oppression, so she decided to follow Chilford. There was also another apparent cultural struggle in another scene, when housekeeper Mai Tamba told her master Chilford that she and Jekesai needed time off to participate in a cultural ritual to pay respect and honor the dead. Chilford was furious when he heard that, and explained to Jekesai that she was not allowed to attend because she had already converted to Christianity. In that scene, I was able to feel for Jekesai, because it must have been very difficult for her to deal with the struggle of her true identity.

    In terms of identity, I cannot understand why the Chancellor would completely abandon his cultural heritage and transform into another person- a person whom he thought was more superior to the rest. Through occurring motifs, such as his habit of smoking, drinking tea, and consuming whiskey, he was rejecting every aspect of his own heritage, and embracing everything else that he thought would make him successful. In a way, it saddens me, because it is not necessarily true.

    In the end, we saw that Jekesai returned to her original clothing, back to the very beginning when she first started in the play. I am convinced that “The Convert” really makes us think about our own identity, and learn to cherish it.

    • Julian- I agree with the various “cultural struggles” present throughout “The Convert.” I wrote about the scene when Mai Tamba requested a week off in order to go to the village for a ceremony in my blog post as well. This scene was very powerful. Ester, just a child, wanted to please both Chilford, her master, and Mai Tamba, but she knew it was impossible to do both. You mention the concept of “identity” as well in your post. In the scene described above, it seems, Ester has a change in identity. She decides to stay with Chilford to continue learning about Jesus Christ, rather than celebrating a ritual of her ancestors. It seems that in this moment, Ester’s identify transforms from a savage girl, believing in pagan rituals, to a more sophisticated and Godly girl, yearning to learn more about Jesus Christ.

      • Thank you for your comment, Rachel. It is interesting that you mentioned that Jekesai (Ester) transformed herself during the scene when Jekesai decided to follow Chilford’s words of advise instead of participating the ritual of honoring the dead with Mai Tamba. It really makes me wonder what she was thinking at that very moment, because even though she listened to Chilford, she did not seem to be very convinced, and when Mai Tamba was criticizing her for not following family traditions, she did not seem to give a response at all. It must have been a struggle for Jekesai to endure.

  10. The performance of “The Convert” was by far the most intense experience I have had during our Washington theater tour. It was intense from the first moments of the play, when Jekesai runs on stage topless in traditional Zulu attire, through the disturbingly uncomfortable rape scene. “The Convert” punches the audience at the very start of the play and does not stop until the production is finished almost three hours later. Personally, the show was just too much for me. The constant discomfort I experienced, while powerful, forced me to detach myself from the theme of the play in order to make it through. Instead of sympathizing with the characters on stage, I was constantly reminding myself I was just watching a play, a story. As a result, I found myself un-invested in the play and not really caring what happened next. This had nothing to do with the quality of the acting, which I felt was superb; but, instead, was a defense mechanism to make it through the play. In particular, I thought the acting by Dawn Ursula, who played Prudence, was fantastic. Thank God for her character, who added small snippets of humor into the play to lighten the mood. Another aspect of the play I found challenging was understanding the actors. While their ascents made the play feel far more real, too real for me in many cases, I had trouble following the dialog at different points in the production. “The Convert” raised some deep and profound issues; but, to be honest, I was so overwhelmed by the rape scene I did not recover to appreciate the deeper meaning of the play. All in all, I can’t say that I enjoyed the play; but, I also can’t say that it did not have an impact me. It most certainly did.

    • Brian, this is not specifically addressed to you, as I have a feeling several of our classmates shared your discomfort. While this was a play, a show… we must remember that this was someone’s reality, exemplified through “The Convert”. There have been several comments about the “nudity” in the play. We must remember that another culture’s traditional dress comparatively still should not be offensive. Instead of focusing on the actress’ ability to display a small piece of her character’s culture, some of us were distracted by her (Black) breast, unnecessarily sexualizing Jekesai and even Nancy Moricette (the actress). As far as the rape scene, it is a sad reality that we cannot tune out from, as it happens to far too many for us to dismiss. The violence that occurred between the different classes of African “Rhodesians” and those between Africans and white colonialist actually occurred. Colonialism created tensions between the African underclass and those who assimilated into European culture and those Europeans who were forcibly taking land and jobs from African citizens. While disturbing, I believe that the play and the characters presented realistic, and historically accurate emotions, beliefs, and actions. For the class, I just want us to not shut ourselves off something that we may not identify with or may be uncomfortable addressing. In fact, I would like to talk more about our experiences watching these plays in class.

  11. I felt thoroughly overwhelmed after Thursday’s viewing of The Convert. I could immediately appreciate Dania Guria’s masterfully crafted dialogue delivered beautifully by a stellar ensemble, but it has taken me a couple days to sift through the emotional, historical, and spiritual depth of the production. I can divide my lingering impressions of the production between a thirst for historical and cultural knowledge and an appreciation for the powerful women characters

    The Convert was an intriguing peek into a culture I know very little about. Guria’s identity as a born American raised in Zimbabwe clearly affords her a deep knowledge of both cultures — a knowledge that is evident in her portrayal of a foreign culture that American audiences could relate to. This was my first time viewing the colonial experience from the colonized point of view, and I find myself wanting to know more about the native reaction to imperialism. The play certainly succeeded in telling an untold story to a western audience, and I think this difficult task was accomplished due to Gurira’s connection to both her subject and her audience.

    Even deeper than my curiosity about this new culture, however, was my own personal connection the production. The cast was made up of seven individuals, but in my opinion the three most powerful characters were the women. Mai Tamba manipulates Chilford into hiring Jekesai and continues to practice her native traditions behind his back. Jekesai struggles to find her voice but she eventually chooses her own fate and faces death with bravery. Prudence originally seems to be shallow and materialistic but over the course of the play reveals herself to be self-aware and well educated. I was so impressed with her ability to incorporate Western ideals with the cultural roots of her past. I was reminded of last week’s production of Good People where Mike was so unable to identify with both his past and present lives.

    The power of these women is ultimately tested. Mai Tamba witnesses her son’s murder. Prudence is unable to convince the authorities to spare Tamba’s life. She is defeated and vows to end her pregnancy rather than subject her child to such an unjust world. Perhaps the most upsetting moment of the play is when Chancellor forces himself upon Jekesai — rendering her completely powerless with his physical strength. Despite this low point, I think Jekesai finishes the play as the most powerful character. Her bravery and determination to do what she believes is right seems to offer a resolution not just for herself but for the other female protagonists as well.

  12. After viewing The Convert on Thursday, I was not quite sure how to feel about it. There were many things I enjoyed about it: the acting, the set, and the intimacy of the theater. There were also many things I didn’t care for. The play was a little too long for my liking and the subject matter was pretty dark. In the context that Ari asked above in the prompt, though, I feel this play was an excellent end to our month long exploration into the topic of race.

    While the other plays we viewed discussed the issue of race in a very modern setting, The Convert looked at race in colonial Zimbabwe. It also focused on the role that religion played in these relationships. The Christian English are attempting to convert the traditionalist Zimbabweans and in these interactions the greatest tension between the races is formed. Zimbabweans that convert are viewed as traitors to their ancestors, and though they are viewed in better terms than their traditional colleagues, the educated Zimbabweans are still viewed as inferior by the English. This is something that Chancellor, Prudence, and Esther were able to see but Chilford wasn’t. He had believed right up until the end that the English and the Church would accept him as an equal, only to discover this may not be the case as his world was collapsing around him. He only saw the issue as a religious one and could not understand why few Zimbabweans were willing to completely convert, he could not see the underlying racial politics behind the conflict.

    This is why I feel that the play did such a good job at closing up our discussion on race. Taking a look at the beginning of the racial conflict that defined the 19th and 20th centuries; we can see how much progress we have made. Unlike Chilford, we are able to see the bigger impact that the conflict of race can have. We also still have much work to do. The recent discussions about the voter rights act and affirmative action show that race is still a relevant and polarizing issue. Though the likelihood that we would ever return to segregation is non-existent, if racism is treated as a problem that was solved and not as one that still exists and is a struggle to eliminate, we will never reach our true potential as a nation.

    • Hi Louis, I had the same feeling as you after seeing the play. A very complex feeling, or even, as you said, wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it. I really like the way you pitch the play by analyzing race and religion. And I found there was a little component of gender too. When Prudence had that opportunity to talk with Esther alone in the living room, she mentioned that she got much more educations than both of these two men, but as a women, it might never be a really good thing. And later on she also said something like, “There is no place for a high educated woman.” (I could only vaguely remember it, apologize if there is any mistakes).
      This is a HUGE play which contains so many topics. There are a lot to talk about, but in another way, it’s hard to talk about it from a solo angle.

    • A few blog posts have brought up the topic of race yet again. I would like to expand on the ideas Louis presents regarding race. I agree that “The Convert” depicted the racial aspects of an African colony. However, in my opinion, the race in “The Convert” was not the typical black or white race relations seen in other plays this semester. There were different kids of black-white race in “The Convert.” As stated in a few blog posts, there were three different groups: the African American savages, the more sophisticated African American colonials, and the whites. The racial struggles and social struggles occurred between the above three classes; the struggles were not directly contingent upon the color of skin. I found this to be very interesting. Each group thought their way was the right way, and were hesitant about changing their customs and rituals. This, as the play demonstrated, caused much conflict and added to the racial and social struggles throughout the play.

      • Rachel, thanks for your comment. I think the reason I put so much emphasis on the aspect of race is because I took a class last semester that explored the psychology of racism. My professor’s goal was to find the root cause of racism in America without mentioning slavery or other historical contexts. I was not trying to disregard the clash of societies in the play, which I agree are just as important. I was focusing mainly on the struggle between the African American colonists, specifically Chilford, and the English colonists. To me, this was a racial issue as opposed to a cultural one, as he embraced the English language and culture completely, but was still viewed as inferior to them. This interested me a lot more because it has ties to the other racial issues in plays we viewed, but I do also appreciate the other cultural factors you addressed that I missed the first time.

  13. The Convert was an intense inspection of social inequalities. Living in the U.S. we’re all susceptible of forgetting that there are others in the world who are starving, sick, and oppressed. What’s worse is that, though we’d rather not admit it, we place a greater value on American lives than on the lives of the less fortunate. It’s not such a horrible transgression. It’s called patriotism, and it’s also called being human. We identify with people we know, not people in foreign countries and in situations we could never understand.

    What The Convert tries to demonstrate was that all lives are equal. It doesn’t matter what religion you believe in, what village you live in, or what sex you are. We are all people, and thus, we are all of the same worth. The characters in the play place such great importance on their religion, their outfits, their vocabulary, etc., because they believe these “things” all somehow make them more worthwhile human beings.

    By the end of the play, though, the missionary Chilford comes to the realization that these “things” on which he’s placed such importance his entire life are actually meaningless – at least in the grand scheme of things. He realizes that this whole divide between villagers and missionaries, the rich and the poor, the literate and illiterate, are fabrications of society. That’s why he makes the frantic attempt to help Esther escape.

    The Convert really makes you think about a lot of things, but this whole idea that one person is somehow more important than another really got to me. It made me think of how little I care about the homeless guy I pass to work, and how I sit in awe every time the President makes an announcement. The President and the homeless guy live and die just like the rest of us. The only thing making one of them more valuable than the other are these things on which society chooses to place importance. So the next time you pass by that homeless guy, think of The Convert and of the lessons it preaches: when you strip away all this stuff with which our society is so enthralled, we’re all the same.

    • You bring up an interesting point about the deeper meaning of the play. While it is true that the social worth/value of people is socially constructed, I was not compelled to think that the play was showcasing that are lives are equal. I felt that the play was showcasing how although the inequalities of life are social constructions that are simply “made up” by people, they are in fact real and have real consequences because we as humans bring value to them. To me, one point that the Convert was trying to make was that unfortunately, all lives are not equal and different values are placed among different people based on class, country of origin, race and ethnicity, education level, etc.

      You bring up an interesting point however about Chilford. What went on internally with him at the end of the play? While I think he did realize more than before that the whites in Zimbabwe will not ever respect him like he wants to be respected, I cannot say that he fully grasped to what extent that what he was doing (by assimilating into white culture) was not going to help the future of blacks in Zimbabwe. At the end of the play, Ester still wants him to open up his own church and starts singing a song that she wants him to sing to the congregation. While I feel that this was a convergence of cultures at least, I really wonder what Chilford would be doing years from now and if his perspective about the “savage” culture and mother tongue of Zimbabwe would change.

  14. Let me being by saying that “The Convert” was the most graphic play I have seen up to date. Though it did make me feel uncomfortable, I think the graphic nature really helped to bring the story to life. It only seems fitting that a difficult situation brought on by colonialism could only be best conveyed with a certain level of discomfort.

    “The Convert” really spoke to me on multiple perspectives, but the characters Chilford and Chancellor interested me the most. Having grown up in Zimbabwe prior to colonization, Chilford and Chancellor remember their culture, yet they gave it up in exchange to be successful. The success Chilford and Chancellor both seek can be defined in their own individual terms (Chilford wants to be a priest, Chauncey wants to make a lot of money), but I was really amazed by the way both characters turned away from their culture. I find their “switch” so interesting because I was born in South Korea but raised in the U.S. And while I may have spent more years of my life living in the U.S. than I did in Korea, I don’t necessary identify myself as “more” American than I am Korean. I like to think of myself as just an individual who was a lucky byproduct of two different cultures. But, I don’t think I could imagine what could have happened if I had to decide between the two cultures that I identified with. In “The Convert”, all characters had to essentially choose which culture they wanted to identify with; the two cultures (those of traditional Zimbabwe and those of a colony) had to conflict due to racial tensions. So upon being introduced to Chilford at the beginning of the play, I was so surprised to even consider that a person could ever be completely rid of their culture. However, my initial thoughts changed throughout the play as I saw Chilford reveal his inner thoughts and emotions, which still found themselves rooted in the memories of his past. The struggle that I saw Chilford experience throughout the play served as a great reminder that I should always be thankful for the fortunate course my life took. I was lucky enough to be a blend of two cultures that need not conflict greatly to a point of selecting one identity or the other. In retrospect, I don’t think I would ever be as happy as I am today if I identified myself with one culture over the other. Knowing how my life turned out, I think having the opportunity to fuse the two cultures that pervaded my lifestyle was the greatest turn of event I could have ever experienced.

    • Viewing the characters as byproducts of multiple cultures is an interesting, and useful, way to understand the show. I think what you said about the choices they make to gravitate toward (and distance themselves from) the two distinct cultures represented indicates that it was not easy to live in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) at this time without making these choices, or at least being cognizant of them. It was interesting to see how parts of the tribal culture were considered to be assets, and how Chauncey — in a time of desperation before his death — reverted almost immediately to these instinctive behaviors. That being said, when his privilege was still intact before the tribes started enacting revenge on their Anglo-philic counterparts, he took pride in greatly distinguishing himself from behaviors that could be considered “savage”. What was incredibly interesting to me was that certain behaviors — sexual predation and alcohol consumption specifically — were not only acceptable, but commonplace in both the Anglo-philic African world and the indigenous one.

  15. “The Convert” is the first play we have seen this semester, I can recall, that has evoked an expressed and audience-wide display of shock. When Jekesai/Esther revealed her blood-stained shirt, audience members actually gasped. I don’t remember anything happening like that in any of the other productions. This is by far the most dramatic production we have seen. The play expresses the difficulties of trying to juggle and balance different identities, and also the conditions and atrocities associated with colonialism. I have not studied African and more specifically Zimbabwean history, but this play has confirmed my thoughts that colonialism was most often cruel and negative towards the native peoples and cultures. This was a difficult play to watch, and the first play to make me cry this semester. The most emotional part of the play was Prudence’s exit. I can’t even remember the specifics of what she said, but I know that it was powerful enough to evoke tears. Prudence’s character may have been favorite. She had found a somewhat functional way of keeping one foot on both sides. She was a highly educated woman who as far as appearances and mannerisms would be seen as adapted to colonial culture, but she still spoke the vernacular with pride and acknowledged her native identity. I felt truly sorry for Chilford and Esther who so blindly believed in the Catholic Church. Conversion missions are something I find so strange. Pushing beliefs onto another person is so hard to tolerate. I had an inkling from the beginning that at one point Esther would be disappointed with her newfound religion, which she only felt so deeply about because Chilford told her that Jesus is what kept her from being forcefully married. And Chilford, also, was left disappointed when he found out he was not the first African born priest. The acting was moving and even though it was a long play, I found it riveting and enjoyable.

  16. I don’t think The Convert is relatable to any other theater production I have seen thus far with the Politics of Theater class. The Wooly Mammoth Theater was very nice; it had a much more modern and trendy feel than the other theaters we have been in. However, I was surprised to see the size of the theater itself; it was quite small. I was impressed, however with the costuming and scenery of this production. I thought it all accurately depicted the time period and the types of people and cultural groups presented in this play.

    I found the recurring theme of religion a huge factor of this production. The passion, dedication, and love for Jesus Christ that Pastor Childford had was just astounding to me. I think it is refreshing and nice to know that people can be so dedicated to something, no matter what it is. This man was so dedicated that he has devoted his life solely to the mission of Jesus Christ and converting others to follow the ways of the Lord. This is exemplified in Act I when Mai Tamba tells Ester they are going to a ceremony of their tribe to bring back the dead. Mai Tamba’s brother died and she is recruiting Ester to come to the ritual ceremony with her. Pastor Chilford is extremely upset when he hears this because he does not at all believe in bringing back the dead or talking to the dead and claims these two women are going to a “pagan ritual.” After Pastor Chilford explains in great detail the many sacrifices he made as a child in order to follow the ways and teachings of Jesus Christ, Ester complies and agrees to stay with him and continue learning about Jesus rather than attending a “pagan ritual” with Mai Tamba in their village.

  17. This play was hands down the most intense performance I have ever seen. I still haven’t been able to intelligently process it in a way that I should for this sort of posting.

    I want first to mention how incredibly powerful the ending scene was because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. When Jekesai is making her confession to Chilford she seemed to channel all the heaviness, sorrow and violence of colonialism. It felt like the room froze, almost voyeuristically. She talked about how she just wanted to see if the blood of the white colonizers was the same as that of her people. Throughout the play Jekesai struggled between her conversion to Christianity and her cultural and familial ties. Chilford forced her to be all or nothing. He claimed that she could not profess Christianity while maintaining her roots and traditions. I think that this distinction was something Chilford had struggled with his entire life. Although he was so completely devoted to heeding the white colonizers, I felt like he was walking the line so perfectly because it was the only way he knew how to stand. If he let Jekesai embrace her heritage even a little then he would have to come to terms with how completely he had abandoned his own. Nevertheless he grants her forgiveness, finally acknowledging the gravity of the colonial situation.

    I believe the character of Prudence was whom the audience was supposed to most identify with. She was educated. She refused to give up her native tongue and (some) traditions regardless of how many colonial customs she adapted. She was the sometimes-comic voice of reason that gave the audience a chance to breathe. I loved what her character had to say about the trivialness of being an educated woman in 19th century society and how little it mattered in the face of the white colonizers. However it was still the character of Jekesai that sticks with me. The song she hums to Chilford as the lights go down was heartbreaking. It was beautiful and filled with hope despite the tragedy awaiting them both. She was ethereal, smiling through her tears as she sacrificed herself.

    • Austin, you made a very interesting observation about Chilford’s only knowledge to walk the line. I really appreciate that you described this because I completely agree with you. It seems that Chilford was scared to deviate from the line because he did not know any other way. Chilford was taken as a young child, and I’m sure it is very difficult to recount one’s personal childhood memories. Growing up in such an estranged environment, Chilford, I like to think, is the product of when a child is outside of everything he knows and is forced to adapt in a new environment. Yet, to see him constantly interact with people of his culture is something amazing. It might speak to his faith or this aforementioned fear of leaving the colonial ways he adopted, but it remains clear that it must be an intense strength in faith or an extreme factor of fear in order to keep him so adamantly rooted in his adopted culture.

      I also think it is amazing how Chilford kept calling Jekesai his protégé when in reality I think he was just trying to confirm his identity by creating another person reflective of his lifestyle. I almost wonder if Chilford was using Jekesai subconsciously to see if he made a rational decision in adopting the colonial way while completely abandoning his own culture.

  18. This play was without question the best theater experience I have had in quite a while. The play itself with it’s layers of humor, tragedy and action really brought all of the things that I appreciate most about plays; the storytelling. I think that “The Convert” did just that.

    I thought the myriad of “isms” brought up and worked through in the storytelling was exceptionally done. Some of which included colonialism, racism, sexism, colorism, cultural, religious, and lingual discrimination. This picture of reality was so glaring and familiar to me yet presented in a way that still made it feel really exceptional. With that said there were a number of things that stuck out to me.

    One of those things being the question of cultural authenticity which, I thought about through the entirety of the play. With quotes like “You’re a European in an African costume,” and “baufo” lover to the white man or white man’s traitor, the matter of if one was holding on to who they really are or becoming a product of colonialism. This question manifested itself in the form of Chilford’s performance almost to a point of what I felt caricaturized European culture. The dealings of language and accents, holding on to one’s dialect and the notion that to speak English like a European is sign of intelligence was an interesting one that has realized itself even in today’s society a true byproduct of colonialism.

    In the same lane is the change of names as a sign of acculturation and commitment to Christian beliefs; the meaning of names in both the Zimbabwean and European cultures. First, is Jekesai which means to illuminate, ironically the meaning behind Ester, originally Esther, a biblical figure who was a Jewish girl who became a Persian queen and stopped a plan that would ultimately destroy her people. The parallelism between Jekesai and the biblical Esther is the theme of betrayal, bravery and staying true to who you are even the midst of an unfamiliar culture and I think that those certainly manifested in the Nancy Moricette’s character. The matter of a name was especially relevant in Dawn Ursula’s character (my favorite) Prudence. Prudence, a word which often is associated with wisdom, reason and discernment fit the exact role I thought Prudence played, being a voice of reason. She gave the final say that would prevent Tamba from being killed by Chilford, she reminded Ester that even in her following of Christ she forgot her Zimbabwean identity, she, even in a fit of rage, brought sense to a senseless Chilford after the Chancellor’s death and finally her prophetic statement “Justice must come to pass, and it will be brutal” was more than exemplary of her name.

    The watch, which was practically a key to the many turn of events, was symbolic to a stealing, losing and giving back of time. Time, which is no less a subject of study in religion and its meaning to life, was just so central to what I took away from the play. It reminded me of world time. The fact that many things can happen at once but even more so that everything is relative and the notion of cause and effect. When I think about this I can’t help but wonder had one or two things been different would I even be here in America, speaking English, with the last name Johnson (a Scottish-English name)? “The Convert” evoked that kind of thought process, which I think made for a heightened theater-going experience.

  19. The Convert invoked many thoughts and emotions for me. There were several themes that stood out to me. Colonialism. Sexism. Classism. Religious tension. Self-Hate… The play and the characters did a great job pulling the complex nature of 1890’s Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Colonialism really divided the country, as well as the rest of the Continent. It created an economic situation that robbed native peoples of their land, their jobs, and threatened their culture. European powers capitalized on the Africa’s minerals, rich soil, and human capital, even after slavery was outlawed. It also created tensions between Africans who wanted to maintain their culture and those who were willing to abandon it for ideas of success.
    Identity was something that struck me the hardest. Particularly Jekesai/Ester. Her character left her family behind to follow God’s calling on her life. She learned English, European culture, and what it meant to be a Christian. However, a big part of her wanted to be with her family and adhere to her cultural practices. Her heart was in both places and it was challenging to give up her past. Chilford expressed his struggle initially with giving up his past but he served as an example of someone who left “darkness” for “the light”. He and Chancellor used language like “darkness” and “savage” to describe people who did not conform to European culture. It was interesting to hear how the language of the British influenced the African upper classes that once were the “savages” that they describe.
    Chilford was more smug about his class position than anyone in the play and ultimately it cost him his life. Tamba represented the struggles of the underdeveloped Africa. The people whose land and jobs were taken from them. His frustration with those who abandoned their culture for something that was more profitable. Assimilation was easier than being trampled on. Tamba, also came to a violent end as her represented a culture of rebellion and was used as an example.
    Finally Prudence demonstrated the complex nature of Colonial African society. While she seemed to assimilate, she showed Jekesai that she maintained her native tongue and was educated beyond what they expected her to be. She also showed how her gender hindered her in the patriarchal society. Her wits really made the play and exposed the strength and weaknesses of each character.
    Overall, I am still working through the many themes in the play. Each time I revisit the play in my mind, I find another aspect of it that I enjoyed or ways that it relates to current struggles of identity.

    • Hey Mark,

      I really appreciated your insightful blog post, as identity also stood out to me as one of the major themes of the play. I think your assessments of the characters’ struggles with identity, are spot on, however I think it is also useful to contemplate on the origins of the struggles these characters face. You mention some of them in the begining of your post, mainly colonialism, and the colonial conflict as a source of the struggle. I think it is interesting to consider what colonial imposition does, or has done to the characters’ ambitions or ideals, and how that imposition becomes both a challenge and a tool for ecah characters’ own personal developmental goals. I am tempted to give Chilford alot of credit in this regard, because at first glance it seems as though he selflessly is fighting for what he perceives as the wellbeing of his people, but his own desires for ‘self-gain’ or his personal ambitions are clear in his expressions of betrayal on being denied the opportunity to become the first African priest in his country or district. Ester seems to most purely represent the ambitions or struggles of others in the play, and somewhat like a martyr she takes those struggles to heart, to the point of honoring her tribe by shedding white blood at the end, and honoring her master by asking him for Christ’s forgiveness, leaving us with a sweet hymn in the end as an offering of hope, and peace.

  20. There were recurring themes between David Mamet’s plays, “Race” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” in that religion acted as a catalyst which pressured characters into acting perhaps against their better judgment, or which transformed their judgment beyond what their culturally created selves and the socialization they received partly through colonization, could recognize. In Mamet’s plays, characters bend under the social and economic pressures of a tense working environment, and those challenges reveal the true colors that human nature takes under the changing lights of power transformed through social impulses. The central themes in all of these plays, which I plan to write about for my midterm assignment, seems to be the distribution of power. “The Convert” seems to present to the audience contrasting and diverging views on what the sources of power in a traditional society imposed upon by foreign colonial rule, often under the pretext of religion, really are. This question matters to those who dwell in this society, because their lives, livelihood, independence and ambitions depend on the conceptions of power which they hold, as well as which are held by others, which functions as currency to realize their intentions.

    The characters in “The Convert,” have mixed opinions on what the sources of control and advantage are in their society, and how this potential can be distributed, shared or corrupted. Mai Tamba the housemaid that dabbles in ‘witchcraft’ as Chilford calls it, seems to believe in the power of her traditional African culture and in the counsel of her elders, and the guidance of her tribal ancestors. Her beliefs are held in direct contention with those of Chilford, who believes that power comes through the Catholic faith, conversion, and education. Chilford believes that power can be distributed through the efforts of the ‘faithful,’ and obtained for natives by acceptance of the faith, bolstered through education. Tamba and Uncle testify to the power that males hold over females and over other males in traditional societies. Chancellor exemplifies a belief in the value of money, and British connections as a source of power; and Chancellor, Chilford, as well as Prudence show that advantage can be obtanied through identifying with European norms, language, culture and connections.

    However, the contradictions in Prudence’s character illuminates the strengths in the character of Ester, who for all of her progress as a convert, ultimately shows that she finds her true strength in her identity as a member of her tribe. Ester is the daughter a warrior, and like the protagonists in Mamet’s plays, when challenged with converging and contradictory conceptions of power, Ester reverts to that conception which is most basic and instinctive to her, and chooses to accept her warrior identity as a legacy which she at least can identify with and understand. She accpts Christianity, and Chilford her ‘pastor’ accepts her acceptance, realizing true conversion demands a transformation, not a rejection of her traditional African identity.

  21. “The Convert” was one of the most powerful productions I have ever seen on the impact of religion on traditional African societies. The plot, the characters, and their acting, all helped to communicate the powerful unitive and destructive impact that religion simultaneously has had on African society.

    **Sorry the first paragraph of my post got cut off**

  22. I could not applaud the Woolly Mammoth Theater’s performance of “The Convert” enough. This is the first play we have seen in class that brought tears to my eyes and the first performance I gave a standing ovation to. The production was incredibly moving, powerful, and very intimate. I could tell the actors were connected to their performances and I found them very convincing and emotional. It was graphic and almost too realistic. It was one of the first shows we have seen that the actions characters carried out were stronger than their words. For example, the beginning of the play was not spoken in English, yet I still understood what was going on. It was a very well done performance and it was a 3 hours well spent.

    I think “The Convert” has the loudest message of all of the plays we have seen thus far. It basically screams at you the negative effects of religious and cultural intolerance. This play really struck home with me because I was born and raised Catholic. I was baptized shortly after my birth, attended a Catholic elementary school, and a Catholic high school. It was not until my Junior year of high school until I realized that I had never been given a choice if I wanted to be Catholic or not. Sure, I was confirmed “by choice” (actually, my Mother forced me and didn’t give me an option) when I was in 8th grade and I went to church every Sunday, but I don’t know if I ever did it voluntarily.

    Since college began, I have renounced my Catholicism and have begun exploring my faith life. Although I was never killef for my beleifs or my resistance, like those in “The Convert,” I did break my mother’s heart. I connected with what Ester was going through because she saw Catholicism as her only salvation. She saw it as an escape. I don’t really know if she ever truly believed in God or if she thought that God would save her from violence, poverty, and discrimination, and allow her to become a teacher of her great faith and English ways. But what Ester and the others found out, was that it was much more than just a fight about Religion–it was also about race.

    We have all read and learned of the history of violence and discrimination that Africans faced in their home countrys, and in our own. But to actually see it played out on stage was so extremely difficult. It almost made me feel helpless…to know that people had to suffer that way just because of what they looked like, how they spoke, or what they believed. I had never felt so ashamed of my Catholic upbringing and my white skin. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to change the past, we can only change the future, and I think that is what this play reminds us. No one is more important or more valuable than ANYONE else. Not because of where they are from, how they speak, what they look like, or what they believe. We should all be equals, and every single human being should be treated with respect and tolerance. I think that “The Convert” reminds us that everyone has a story, and everyone was raised differently. Therefore, we all have different cultures, beliefs, and habits. If everyone could understand this, and respect different opinions, the worl would be a much happier and more peaceful place.

    • I really appreciate your viewpoint and the theme you pointed out in the play; negative effects of religious and cultural intolerance. Like you I thought this play was moving in that it really told us this woman’s story but was also something that was more universal than I realized, i..e. your story. I also like that you pointed out that the fight she was fighting was not just about religion but also the role race and identity played as well in that fight. I thought about the history of violence and discrimination that isn’t any less relevant today and I felt glad that it was being given a new voice and an unfamiliar context. Also I noticed your point about respect and tolerance and I think that is something that really stood out to me through out the play as well-the realities of cultural differences.

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