When Jekesai, the young African woman at the core of the intense and deeply affecting new play by Danai Gurira, first arrives at the home of Chilford, the catechist who'll change her life, she sniffs his floor. In this part of southern Africa, the part then called Rhodesia but now called Zimbabwe, most floors in the bush were made of cow dung. But this fellow African — devoutly Roman Catholic, well-spoken, privileged by his white colonial masters of church and state and referred to as "master" by his fellow Africans — dwells on concrete.
The replacement of that pungent but organic substance with the cold, invasive efficiency of cement is the first of many symbols in "The Convert," set between 1895 and 1897 entirely in Chilford's Salisbury home (now Harare), that tracks the journey of a young woman (honestly played by Pascale Armand). The titular convert escapes the frying pan of her native patriarchal culture, with its forced marriages and widespread abuse of women, only to fall into the complex but searing fire of white colonialists who, she comes to see, bring the Bible with them but "don't do what the book it is saying."
Gurira's characters have clear archetypal elements: Chilford (LeRoy McClain) kowtows for his own ambition; Chancellor (Kevin Mambo) is a savvy but amoral African who uses the resources of instability for his own ambitions; Mia Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), Chilford's deep-feeling housekeeper and Jekesai's aunt, acts as the play's moral conscience; and Prudence (Zainab Jah), a highly educated and free-thinking African women, is a proto-feminist character whose smarts, ignored by both the warring sexist cultures, have inevitably mutated to cynicism. They had nowhere else to go.
But none of that is bothersome as things play out over three intensely involving acts under the relentlessly detailed direction of Emily Mann. Mann's production, which has doubtless deepened and features muted but powerful design work from Daniel Ostling, Paul Tazewell, Lap Chi Chu and Darron L. West, was first seen at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. and now has moved to the Goodman Theatre, as part of a three-way "world premiere" also shared with the Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles.
Gurira has written a richly complex portrait — dramatic functions never compromise the palpable humanity of her characters — of a group of Africans all suffering in different ways from the clash of their native culture with the well-spoken brutality of the British colonialism of the 19th century. Gurira, who also co-wrote the excellent but less ambitious "In the Continuum," was born in Zimbabwe; "The Convert" is a gutsy, heartfelt, often sad and exceptionally skilled attempt to wrestle with some of her country's demons — demons who first came from afar but ignited a kind of cultural chaos, an upending stampede, inextricably linked with the arrival of an invasive Christian church that branded long standing African cultural practices as heathen witchcraft that must be stamped out.
Her most affecting character is, actually, Chilford, whom McClain plays, superbly, as a confused and mostly well-meaning soul, fired up by both the apparent sophistication of the new religion and its evangelical and educational imperatives, along with the personal advancement prospects offered by a new set of bosses who want, he thinks, to impose an enlightened meritocracy, benefiting the educated such as he, on the archaic practice of chiefs. But the play wouldn't work unless Chilford was empathetic, which is most certainly the case with McClain.
He wants an acolyte, for sure, but he also wants to educate the young woman he christens Ester and stuffs in a dress. She, in turn, sees a man whose Jesus and whose apparent gentility both enthrall her. "He must be the brightest spark you have ever seen," says the knowing Prudence, Chilford's friend, but a woman who sees both his appeal and the limits of his power, things that neither Chilford nor his dutiful convert can see for themselves.
For these African characters, including a young man named Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller) who is driven to violence, this is a conundrum with heart-breaking elements. They swirl in and out of this concrete-floored room, never certain of which way the wind is blowing, whose truth to believe, or what it means to them.
So rich is this collective portrait of colonialism from the point of view of those being colonized, you find yourself pondering the various international excursions of the European church, not to mention thinking about how those born in the ferment of change and revolt often suffer its brunt, without seeing any benefit. Although the references are muted, Gurira clearly sees America as one emancipatory answer to this familiar trajectory of oppression; the play does not deal with the sin of slavery, although perhaps it should.
Blistering acted throughout, "The Convert" is already dealing with so much — it's not easy to write a single-set play with just seven characters and allow us to see tumult like this. But see it and feel it we do.
When: Through March 25
Where: In the Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $12-$42 at 312-443-3820 or goodmantheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye