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The Convert at Goodman Theatre | Theater review

A young African woman embraces the new faith espoused by Western colonizers but finds herself at odds with her heritage in Danai Gurira’s ambitious new drama.

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

Pascale Armand in The Convert at Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

LeRoy McClain in The Convert at Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

Cheryl Lynn Bruce in The Convert at Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

Warner Joseph Miller in The Convert at Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

Kevin Mambo in The Convert at Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

Zainab Jah in The Convert at Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

Harold Surratt in The Convert at Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

The Convert at Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

The Convert at Goodman Theatre

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The Convertat Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

The Convertat Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

The Convertat Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

The Convertat Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

The Convertat Goodman Theatre

 (Photograph: T. Charles Erickson)
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Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

The Convertat Goodman Theatre

Jekesai, the young woman at the center of Danai Gurira’s new play, is both optimist and opportunist. She’s a member of a Shona tribe in late-19th-century southern Africa, where her people’s native land is being settled and divvied up by Western nations. Jekesai (the radiant, guileless Pascale Armand) eagerly takes up study of Christianity with a Westernized African catechist to escape an arranged marriage. But under the tutelage of Chilford (LeRoy McClain), Jekesai—whom he renames Ester—proves a bright and avid student, better versed in the Bible than the local white priest. Soon she’s giving testimony on the streets and bringing her fellow natives into mass. When an uprising comes, she finds herself trapped between her two worlds.

The Zimbabwean-American playwright draws a range of richly nuanced African characters. While the presence of the colonizing whites is deeply felt, they remain offstage. Chilford and his Western-educated friend, Chancellor (Kevin Mambo), wear Victorian clothing and speak, in stilted English, of the “savages” who bore them with alternating pity and scorn (though McClain maintains a streak of palpable good intention). Jekesai’s cousin and uncle refer to the men who kowtow to the whites as bafu—traitors—while her aunt, Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), who serves as Chilford’s housekeeper, takes a more pragmatic approach, giving lip service to embracing the new faith while keeping a foot in the old ways.

The ambitious playwright can get bogged down in contextualizing; then, as if to counter all the dry historical speechifying, she races to a dramatic third-act climax that feels inorganic. Still, Emily Mann’s well-acted production remains engaging throughout its three hours.

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