ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

A New Play at the McCarter Tells an African Girl’s Story

By Susan Wallner

Danai Gurira is multi-talented (she’s an actress and a playwright), culturally diverse (she was born in America, but grew up in Zimbabwe), and, as the daughter of academics, she wasn’t afraid to take on 19th century colonial history as the subject of her new play.

The Convert, now at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, is about a young girl’s journey from life in a tribal village to a world of education and modernity in a Catholic mission. By embracing Christianity, Jekesai – who is renamed “Ester” – escapes a forced marriage to a man with multiple wives. Danai has written a humorous but deeply moving portrayal of how Ester’s life changes, for better and worse, as the consequences of her choice unfold.

LeRoy McClain and Pascale Armand in "The Convert." Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson.

As an actress, Danai starred in the acclaimed film The Visitor (with Oscar-nominated actor Richard Jenkins) and on Broadway in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. She has appeared in TV shows including Law and Order, Life on Mars, and Treme. As a playwright, she first made waves with In the Continuum, a two-woman play she wrote and acted in off-Broadway that was named one of the 10 Best Plays of the Year by The New York Times. She won an Obie Award, the Outer Critics John Gassner Award and the Global Tolerance Award for that production in 2006.

Her next play, Eclipsed, was about five young Liberian women caught up in that country’s civil war. In 2009 it was the centerpiece of McCarter Theatre’s Lab Festival. It was also the beginning of a close working relationship between Danai and the McCarter, which is known for its support of young theater artists. The Convert has a national run in store; after its McCarter premiere, the play moves to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre; then on to Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, which commissioned the play.

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“The Convert” is a new play premiering at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ. It’s written by Danai Gurira, a young Zimbabwe-American playwright. “The Convert” is the first in a series of plays she plans to write about Zimbabwean history and identity.

It seems Danai’s playwriting career is off and running – helped along this year by a prestigious Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. Created for artists in the early stages of their careers, it offers a stipend and university access to writers who have demonstrated exceptional promise.

“A lot of the average Zimbabweans, we don’t realize the specifics of the history,” says Danai. “What was going on in Zimbabwe in the 1920s, the 1950s? What was going on in Zimbabwe in the 1890s?” Bringing this history to life, giving it a very human cast of characters, is her mission. Danai plans a cycle of plays about Zimbabwean history and identity, with The Convert being the first. Set in 1895-96, it takes place during the first black/white conflict in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia.

As The Convert’s director, Emily Mann, puts it, “There is a complexity to how [Danai] looks at the situation that I haven’t seen in a play…. We’re hearing from an African woman’s perspective, who’s also an American, whose primary language is English, tell us this story.”

The Convert by Danai Gurira runs through February 12th at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ. For tickets, call 609-258-ARTS(2787) or visit www.mccarter.org.

“The Convert: A New Play at the McCarter” is featured on the February 5th episode of State of the Arts, airing at 10 am and 8 pm on NJTV. Watch a special preview online now.

Susan Wallner is an award-winning producer with PCK Media. She is a long-time contributor to State of the Arts, now airing on NJTV Sundays at 10 am and 8 pm.