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The Convert
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Danai Gurira. At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: 312-443-3800;; $12-$42. Runs through: March 25

Our setting is South Africa—but not the war-torn Africa of recent years, replete with repugnant tales of genocidal atrocities, suffering civilians and Uzi-toting guerrillas. No, this is the colonialist Africa of 1895, our immediate environment is the home of a native-born Christian pastor, and the local citizenry dress in Victorian fashions lending the initial scenes an almost Shavian ambience. Nobody is raped in the course of the action, and violence is kept safely offstage or hidden from view behind furniture more suited to a parlor in Derbyshire than an office in a tropical jungle.

Squeamish audiences hesitant to confront the horrors associated with "Dark Continent" dramas have nothing to fear, in other words. The conflict addressed by playwright Danai Gurira involves a young woman who finds liberation from gender-repressive tribal customs in a gospel promising eternal freedom—a view shared by her evangelist employer, whose aspiration is to become a fully-ordained priest. Their peers may play along, or play into, the White Man's image of the incumbent population, but these pilgrims are sincere in their faith. In a country where those in power refuse, literally, to practice what they preach, this can only end badly—and bloodily.

The lesson we are to draw from this parable is largely dependent on what we arrive expecting to be taught—the roots of the partisan paranoia prevalent in the nation now called Zimbabwe, perhaps, or a crisis of identity as our eager pilgrim struggles in her loyalties to her new-found mentor and to her unreconstructed family. Auxiliary characters provide insight, evident in our own history, into how conquered peoples often assimilate foreign customs into their own culture. Lazy playgoers can even wallow in reparative guilt after secretly indulging their nostalgie de l'exotique.

The cast assembled by director Emily Mann, featuring Pascale Armand as the innocent Ester and LeRoy McClain as the ambitious Chilford—with sly scene-stealing support from Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Zainab Jah as the crafty housekeeper Mai Tamba and trophy mistress Prudence, respectively—deliver marathon-stamina performances, evoking empathy for the archetypal personalities in Gurira's symposial story, despite a protracted running time (three hours, with two intermissions) that, on a smaller stage, could be reduced by 45 minutes without cutting a single word, whether in English or Bantu.

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