The cast in Underground Railway’s impressive production of THE CONVERT (playing through Feb. 28th) is the chief reason to see the play. Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s actors all give extraordinary performances. Over a half century ago, Lorraine Hansberry’s exquisitely painful LES BLANCS covered similar territory, that is, colonial oppression in Africa. Now Danai Gurira’s play, THE CONVERT, concentrates its focus on Africa’s religious conversions at the end of the nineteenth century.
Maurice Emmanuel Parent in a remarkable tour de force manages to make the overzealous, overbearing Catholic proselytizer totally charming. When his housekeeper (Liana Asim in a superb comic turn) outfoxes him and tells him she has a convert-in-the-making for him, we’re in on the conspiracy. The girl (a luminous Adobuere Ebiama) just wants to escape her nasty uncle. The first act has an abundance of gentle humor, most of it at the preacher’s expense. Parent struts and grumbles his objections to folk traditions, but you know he has a good heart and his concerns, albeit misguided, are sincere.
The playwright introduces us slowly and carefully to the other characters, clearly leading us to believe that only one, the covert’s greedy uncle, has bad intentions. But when three of the characters entirely change their personality to become violent for a shocking finish, it’s just not credible.
Even more upsetting, is the playwright’s explanation for the abrupt transformations: She tells us they have reverted to their “tribal” nature, equating tribal mores with what the preacher calls “savage ways.” If we are to believe that, then we’re buying into the spurious European, white view of what is and is not civilized. Act one held such promise with such rich characterizations. Alas, acts two and three are derailed by plot twists that dramatically make no sense.