By James Foritano
Cambridge, Mass. – Central Square Theater’s current production, Danai Gurira’s “The Convert,” onstage at the Cambridge, Mass.-venue through February 28, is a complex piece of theater filled with complex characters.
This description is not intended to warn off theatergoers but to prepare them to focus in as much as possible on the broad outlines of this drama, while letting go as much as possible of those smaller constituent parts they will probably never understand, or never quite understand, literally.
For example, you will probably never understand the Shona language, a language that Mai Tambe, masterfully played by Liana Asim, speaks with a bred-in-the-blood familiarity and speed.
As a female elder in the tribal society of the Shona, Mai Tambe not only speaks Shona, but also models its words and worldview in her posture, movements and smallest gestures. Focus on her worldview and you sense how powerful Mai Tambe is as an embodiment of pre-colonial, tribalized South Africa: focus on her imprisonment, in every word she speaks, in that word-view and you see her coming victimization by a colonial view of the world, sanctified by the Western royalty of both churches and nations, ruthlessly enacted by empire builders like Cecil Rhodes.
Cecil Rhodes and other colonizers for powerful constituencies in late 1800s Africa grasped the principle of ‘creative destruction’ before it was recently enunciated to describe our present economic reality in its resistless remodeling of outmoded ways of acting and being.
If you’re a tribal personage in late 1800s South Africa, present day Zimbabwe, about to be ‘resistlessly remodeled’ or, if necessary, thrown onto the scrap heap, it behooves you to either scramble or get out.
Enjoy the beauty, courage, resourcefulness — and not least the poignancy — of the large-bodied, large-souled Mai Tambe as she struggles to survive and extend survival to her family and tribe in the face of the colonial juggernaut.
Forget the Shona, absorb the persona, is your mantra as you struggle to focus on the forest for the trees. Also, it helps not to feel ‘put upon’ in your struggle if you notice that every character in Mai Tamba’s world is also, like you, struggling, and (not like you) struggling for their very existence as opposed to an evening of enriching theater.
Take Chilford, as played by Maurice Emmanuel Parent, as an example of Herculean, not to say Sisyphean, struggle, to adapt his core beliefs and identity to a Christianity which is foreign, if not in its deepest roots, certainly in its maze of stalks and branches, to his tribe’s deeply held spiritual beliefs.
Chilford, as an assistant to the local Christian priest, and a would-be priest himself, lives, literally and figuratively, in the house of the Colonial god, known everywhere in colonial Africa as God, not ‘give or take’ other deities, just God.
“The Convert” itself is played out in this House of God since every character in this play is, like Chilford, struggling for a survival that successfully ‘converts’ his or her tribal identity to the new ‘colonial model’ without erasing every scintilla of their primal identity.
Again, take, Chilford. As a figurehead of the Christian Church’s invasion of South Africa, Chilford’s idealism sails closely if not over the line to zealotry. As the church ‘took no prisoners’ with Chilford’s conversion, uprooting him at an early age from both family and tribe, so Chilford accepts only the most ‘purified’ converts to the ‘truth’ of Christianity. Yes, he’s as demanding with himself as with his ‘flock,’ but viewed from an observer’s perspective, one wonders whether anything human will be left of Chilford’s converts, of himself, after the ‘fire and brimstone’ of conversion.
Both the repentant and the unrepentant, the sincere and insincere, the fixers and the go-along-to-get-along’s in this societal upheaval are all and equally playing a dangerous, damaging game. A ‘game’ both universal and tragically individual in the zero-sum game — then colonialism, now globalism — that “The Convert” portrays so unflinchingly.
No wonder that their new “English” language often shivers on the edge of comprehensibility into neologisms or very creative idioms as when Chilford signals to his maid that he’ll take lunch “in the present” or “at his leisure.”
Again, overlook the literal to absorb the tone, human-to-human, in this epic struggle of a people, of all of us, to integrate, with some integrity, the selves we’ve known with those to come.
And, not least, to come out alive.
(Danai Gurira’s “The Convert” continues through February 28 at the Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, Mass. Shows take place Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., on Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday at 2 p.m. For ticket information, visit centralsquaretheater.org.)