The Convert debuts at Marin Theatre Company

African Drama in Troubled Times, Troubled Places

For its first production of the new year, Marin Theatre Company is presenting  “The Convert,” a Bay Area premiere by Zimbabwean-American playwright and actress, Danai Gurira.  The play is important for its originality. It’s an African period piece and a dual-language script set in the present Zimbabwe — Rhodesia in 1896 — at a time when native Africans had begun to strike out against the British colonists and other Africans who sided with them. It’s also another culture’s views of family loyalty.

The play opens with Jekesai, half naked, fleeing with her cousin Tamba from her forced marriage to a much-married older man. This flight will enrage her uncle, who was waiting to collect his “bride price.” Tamba takes her to a safe house, the home of Chilford, a young Catholic clergyman, not yet ordained, where Mai Tamba, Jekesai’s aunt, is housekeeper. The home is furnished with a few pieces of Victorian-style furniture and a small altar on one side of the room. The only other ornamentation is a large, wall-mounted crucifix that startles the young  Shona girl. Before Chilford arrives, Mai Tamba throws a concealing, shapeless gown over her niece, then introduces her as a new student and convert. His claim to have the power of God with him will keep Jekesai safe from her enraged uncle. And because Chilford needs converts to improve his status with the Jesuits, he accepts the protege and changes her name to Ester.

Mai Tamba keeps the house in order, but keeps her beliefs to herself. She recites her prayers as required: “Hail, Mary, full of ghosts,” but privately scatters unknown herbs around the home and later upbraids her niece for not going to the family ceremony to honor the dead.

Others come to the home. Chancellor, a friend of Chilford, affects British dress and language because he wants to be part of the winning team. The two friends speak an ornamented kind of English together, while Chancellor’s fiance, Prudence, presents herself as more British than Queen Victoria.

The play’s accents, bilingualism and length make huge demands on both cast and director. MTC’s Jasson Minadakis has assembled a superb, all-Equity cast from locals and imports. Both Katherine Renee Turner (Jekesai/Ester) and Jefferson A. Russell (Chancellor) were together in MTC’s recent production, “Fetch Clay, Make Man.” L. Peter Callender (Uncle) and Omoze Idehenre (Prudence) have made many appearances in the Bay Area, including in Marin Theatre Co’s “Seven Guitars.”  Elizabeth Carter (Mai Tamba) has multiple acting credits locally, while both Jabari Brisport (Chilford) and JaBen Early (Tamba) are making their Marin debuts in this play.

Excellent actors and direction will be necessary for “The Convert” to continue in production at other theatres. Ms. Gurira’s script is almost three hours long and burdened with lengthy speeches. “Wordy,” was a remark overheard at the first of two intermissions. Further, the accents can sometimes overcome the dialogue and make it hard to understand — especially during the speeches. This script will need a tune-up if it’s going to get “legs,” but meanwhile, Marin Theatre Company has given “The Convert” a fine introduction to the west coast.

“The Convert” will play at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley Tuesdays through Sundays till March 15. Sunday matinees are at 2p.m.  All evening shows begin at 7p.m. Ticket prices range from $20 — $58, with discounts available for seniors and military. For additional information, see the website, marintheatre.org, or call the box office, (415) 388-5208.