It isn’t every dramatist these days who can sustain a nuanced narrative through a full three hours and two intermissions — a feat that makes all the more impressive Danai Gurira’s absorbing “The Convert,” her tale of a young African woman’s escape from the tyranny of her background and into the supposedly emancipating embrace of the faith of the continent’s Christian colonizers.
Mind you, this well-made play takes its time constructing its portrait of an indigenous social order of late 19th century southern Africa convulsed by Europeans importing their guns and their God. And the impulse to bring events to a shocking boil ultimately drives the playwright toward an unfortunately sensationalized conclusion.
But in its effectively detailed conjuring of the lives of a half-dozen African characters — capped by the vivid central performance of Nancy Moricette as the Roman Catholic neophyte of the title — the play explores with cool intelligence the schisms that colonization causes. And just as forcefully, the work on the Woolly Mammoth Theatre stage tallies the brutal toll that outdated provincial customs exact on African women.
Gurira, an Iowa-born actress and writer who grew up in Zimbabwe, has visited the trials of African women in her other dramas on the Woolly stage, first in “In the Continuum,” the women-with-AIDS piece she wrote and performed with Nikkole Salter, and later in “Eclipsed,” her sober play about kidnapped women forced to live as concubines to a Liberian warlord. In terms of dramatic scope, those works seem like thumbnails compared to the vaster canvas Gurira is drawing on now.
Under Michael John Garces’s clear-eyed direction, Gurira traces the rapid education of Moricette’s unworldly Jekesai, after she has been brought from her village by her beloved aunt (a robust Starla Benford), housekeeper to Chilford (Irungu Mutu). He’s an African for whom Catholicism expresses everything he finds superior about the white man’s world. The spirited Jekesai, chafing at the proposed arranged marriage of her to a village elder, seeks safe haven with Chilford, who rechristens her “Ester” and succeeds in turning her into a Catholic of extraordinary discipline and devotion.
Contributing to “The Convert’s” luxurious running time are the lengths to which Gurira goes to give supple identities to each of the characters passing through Chilford’s prim house in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (later to become Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital). Since each character reveals a crucial aspect of the social fabric, it’s hard to know what might conceivably be trimmed from this three-act play. If anything, there are intriguing dimensions to the story — such as the precise nature of the platonic relationship between Chilford and Ester — that are left unexamined.
With spiritual conversion as her starting point, Gurira wants us to see the tumult wreaked by foreign intervention solely from the perspective of the conquered. In the opening scene, the bare-chested Ester enters Chilford’s Western-style house, with its simple but cozy furnishings, and she’s utterly dumbfounded; she pokes at his Victorian sofa as if she can’t believe it’s solid matter. Her dramatic counterpart is the imperious Prudence, the product of a private boarding school, who’s betrothed to Chilford’s dandy of a confidante, Chancellor (the excellent Alvin Keith).
As portrayed to perfection by Dawn Ursula, Prudence is a splendidly overbred enigma. She’s terminally unhappy, unsuited to the skirt-chasing Chancellor, contemptuous of the innocent Ester and in turn held in contempt by the whites whose English isn’t as pretty as hers. She’s an inspired tragic figure, conscious of the figurative prison that has been built for her. No wonder an audience can never fully figure out where she’s headed: neither can she. She’s politically and philosophically in the wrong place at the wrong time, an idea reinforced as the downtrodden locals begin taking vicious revenge.
Mutu makes for a solidly single-minded Chilford. In his proper English suits and fractured attempts at English expressions — “It has been a bag of mixtures,” he says, of one iffy proposition — Chilford has none of Prudence’s depth of perception. An absolutist who sees no value in the old ways, he cannot comprehend what is happening to the more sensitive Ester. Through her bonds to her more traditional aunt and cousin Tamba (JaBen Early), she feels guilt about taking a religious path that has meant abandoning them.
“The Convert’s” aura of authenticity receives a boost from set designer Misha Kachman, who imbues Chilford’s sitting room with a rustic, period charm. He and Garces have bisected the orchestra seats with a runway onto which the actors occasionally stroll. It’s not a bad way of drawing us more urgently into the plot, although from where I sat, I could see ahead of time a key portion of a costume under a shawl that was intended for a gasp-inducing reveal.
Other than that, costume designer Helen Huang’s Victorian suits and maid’s uniforms handsomely fit the bill, and the sound and lighting designs by Ryan Rumery and Colin K. Bills are crisply efficient. Virtually everything about “The Convert” — particularly Moricette’s passionately persuasive Ester —contributes to the sensation that Gurira has met the demands of a big subject by writing a big play.
by Danai Gurira, directed by Michael John Garces. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Helen Huang; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryan Rumery; dramaturg, John H. Baker. With Erik Kilpatrick. Through March 10 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.