Danai Gurira’s new play, “The Convert,” set in the 1890s in what would later become Zimbabwe, tells the story of a young African woman, Jekesai (the stunning, graceful Pascale Armand), who converts to Catholicism to escape an arranged marriage, grows devout and finds herself at the center of a bloody cultural upheaval.
To sum Gurira up efficiently would require more backslashes than a URL. Born in Ohio to African academics, she was raised partly in America and partly in Zimbabwe. She’s an Obie-winning playwright (“Eclipsed,” “In the Continuum”) and an actress both on the stage (“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” on Broadway) and on TV (“Treme”). Certainly one of the most diverse living showbiz professionals, with her upcoming role in AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” she is poised to conquer the undead too.
Somehow she also found time to write this extraordinarily ambitious play. Commissioned by the Center Theatre Group and co-produced with Princeton, N.J.’s McCarter Theatre Center and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where it has already had critically acclaimed runs, “The Convert” has arrived at its final stop, the CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.
It’s not frothy entertainment. Although illuminated by gentle humor and warm characterizations, the three-hour-long “Convert” is intense, harrowing and flatteringly demanding. Gurira refuses to condescend to her audience, either in her storytelling — entire scenes are performed in the Shona dialect — or in her moral position, offering no clear-cut villains or heroes. Brought to life by Emily Mann’s subtle direction, a splendid set by Daniel Ostling and a variety of astonishing performances, the play is compelling in spite of an unpersuasive, melodramatic finale.
“The iron claw of colonization is bracing to form a fist over Mashona and Matabeleland of southern Africa in 1896,” begins the playwright’s helpful if portentous program note. And “the white intruders” would be the most obvious candidates for bad guys here — if there were any onstage. Instead, fascinatingly, Gurira has chosen to represent the British only as they are reflected by her seven native characters, who variously embrace, tolerate and reject their colonists’ imposed beliefs.
The action unfolds in the house of black missionary Chilford (LeRoy McClain), who converted to Catholicism as a child and dreams of becoming a priest. He dresses like a Victorian and speaks in an idiosyncratic English peppered with ineptly pretentious exclamations such as “Goodness of graciousness!” and “Be of silence!” He has a position with the British Native Commission, upholstered furniture and a silver tea set. Despite his pomposity, in McClain’s touching portrayal, he is sincere, well-meaning, a bit of a simpleton in his refusal to acknowledge trouble even though converts are “on the dwindle” and his tribesmen have begun to call him bafu (white man’s native, traitor).
Chilford’s housekeeper, Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), pays lip service to Catholicism to placate him (“Hail Mary, full of ghosts,” she grudgingly intones) and to persuade him to hire her marriage-fleeing niece, Jekesai. (“She want to know about God in hewen too!” she lies, knowing Chilford can’t resist the hope of a convert.) In secret she worships her ancestors and hides pagan amulets around the house as she dusts.
Mai Tamba may seem like pure comic relief in the opening scenes, but she is genuinely upset when Jekesai, whom Chilford renames Ester and trains as his protégée, throws herself wholeheartedly into the new religion. Bruce’s face is worth watching whenever she is watching the others; her eyes harden from cunning to threatening as Ester’s faith increases the tension among her relatives and Chilford’s Anglophile friends.
These roles offer less opportunity for subtlety, and they occasionally feel a bit like mouthpieces for particular historical types. Harold Surratt is funny as Ester’s surly, drunken uncle, and Zainab Jah is vividly entertaining as Prudence, the highly educated, possibly anachronistic fiancée of Chilford’s roguish friend Chancellor (Kevin Mambo). As the plot moves inexorably toward tragedy, the characters grow more and more agitated, especially Ester’s cousin, Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller), and Chilford; McClain is obliged to play the final hour and a half through a rictus of bewildered horror, with a chronic sob in his voice. At this point the play belongs to the luminous Armand, who somehow remains fully believable even when Ester’s actions strain credulity.
“The Convert,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 19. $20-$45. (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.