Underground Railway Theater Delivers Powerful Historic Drama in ‘The Convert’ (5 Stars)
by Michele Markarian
The Convert – Written by Danai Gurira; Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Presented by Underground Railway Theater, Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge through February 28.
“You only wrote a few sentences. Why did you stop?” asked my theater companion, who knows how I take copious notes when reviewing a show.
“I am completely caught up in the reality of the piece,” I confessed.
That’s how good “The Convert” is – so well acted, directed and written that you forget that you are watching a play.
“The Convert’ takes place in the latter half of 19th century Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. Briton Cecil John Rhodes has been granted a Royal Charter by the Queen of England, and white colonists are resented by the local Ndebele and Shona tribes, who are being taxed unfairly by the settlers. The gentrified evangelical Chilford (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) has a dream of being the first black priest; he has been trying to convert the locals to the word of God, as taught to him by his mentor, a white man of the cloth.
His maid, Mai Tamba (Liana Asim) brings him her niece from the village, a wild girl called Jekesai (Adobuere Ebiama). Jekesai’s Uncle (Paul S. Benford Bruce) wants to marry her off to an older man with multiple wives. Jekesai, along with her aunt and cousin Tamba (Ricardy Charles Fabre) resists. Chilford renames Jekesai ‘Ester’, and agrees to take her on if she accepts Jesus Christ into her heart and assumes religious studies under his tutelage. Ester agrees, and soon becomes more pious than Chilford himself. But the local tribes take exception to those whom they view as being willing puppets to the white men, and violence ensues. Ester’s loyalty is called into question; is she Ester, Jekesai, or a combination of both?
Jenna McFarland-Lord’s realistic set design runs the length of the middle of the space, so that the audience surrounds the action in a way that makes it immediate and visceral. Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s direction is brisk and fluid, and the actors are so good that I wanted to google them afterwards to see how their stories ended (hint: they’re fictional).
Maurice Emmanuel Parent is terrific as Chilford, masterfully conveying an essentially frightened man hiding behind his piety. Adobuere Ebiama is outstanding as Jekesai/Ester, managing to capture both the girl’s naivete and wisdom. Her scenes with Parent are sympathetic and symbiotic; she truly believes that he is her “master”, and in turn, he cannot imagine life without his protégé. As Chilford’s rakish friend Chancellor, Equiano Mosieri is both charming and a louche. Chancellor’s fiancée, Prudence, an educated African woman, is passionately and convincingly played by Nehassaiu DeGannes. Paul S. Benford Bruce’s Uncle is so menacing and fearful that I was shocked to see his lovely smile during the curtain call – he looked like a different man altogether.
“The Convert” is almost three hours long, with two ten-minute intermissions, but don’t let that stop you. The drama is so compelling that not a moment drags. For more info and tickets, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/convert/