CAMBRIDGE, Mass: The “white devil” remains offstage in “The Convert” — which makes Danai Gurira’s play about the British colonisation of Zimbabwe more troubling and complex.
The obvious villains — from diamond-digging Cecil John Rhodes on down — are M.I.A., while the play’s African characters represent varying attitudes toward their oppressors, from outright hero worship to cunning and then blatant rebellion.
The time is 1895-‘97, a period during which — as a narrative flashed across a wall of the set informs us — Rhodesia, its birth unwelcome, is “crowning.”
The Ohio-born Gurira, who grew up in Zimbabwe and was educated in the U.S., refers to herself as “Zimerican.” She writes vividly for the stage, perhaps because she is an actress (television’s “Treme” and “The Walking Dead”) as well as a dramatist (“In the Continuum,” “Eclipsed”).
“The Convert,” which Underground Railway Theatre is unleashing at Central Square Theatre (through Feb. 28), won both the 2011 Stavis Playwright Award and an Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award.
Written in three acts, it is ambitious if somewhat cumbersome, with a searing but melodramatic end. And it’s getting a riveting if not always comprehensible staging at CST under the direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian.
Some conversations in the play are spoken in Shona, but the Africans also speak English, whether proudly or coerced. (The “dialect design” is by Christine Hamel.)
But perhaps some authenticity of accent might be sacrificed for the sake of understanding; the people sitting behind me complained that they missed about a third of the dialogue.
Be that as it may, it’s pretty clear what goes on as some characters embrace the new regime, with its perks both monetary and hedonistic, while others find their very culture threatened and themselves impoverished and disenfranchised to the boiling point.
Adobuere Ebiama and Maurice Emmanuel Parent in Underground
Railway Theatre’s production of ‘The Convert’.