“Love of one is a barbarism; for it is exercised at the expense of all others. The love of God, too.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Woolly Mammoth is a D.C. theater company known for edgy playwrights and subject matter—Mike Daisey vs. Apple, the JonBenet Ramsey case, things like that. In its current production, Danai Gurira’s The Convert (playing through March 10), Woolly takes on an even more daring topic: conflicted, but real, Christian faith. It’s a terrific, intense, and genuinely provocative show which earns every minute of its three-hour running length.
The Convert is set in 1890s Rhodesia. Its all-black cast includes Christians and animists and in-betweeners, compromisers and rebels and scammers. It begins when a rural girl, Jekesai, flees an arranged marriage. She takes refuge at the home of the local missionary (a sincere but worldly man, who aims to break the color line by being ordained to the Catholic priesthood) and converts to Christianity in a rush of need, high emotion, and garbled prayers.
Over time Jekesai—renamed Esther—becomes the missionary’s favored protégée. She knows the Bible backwards and forwards, and her faith is deep and vivid. The Convert is a play capable of using its head and its heart at once: We’re shown Jekesai/Esther’s mixed motives. We come to understand that her faith, like that of virtually all new or relatively-untested Christians, is faith in many things at once—in her own abilities, in her “Master” the missionary; and, I think, in a certain sense that the world’s injustice has limits. But she also has genuine, fiercely strong faith in Christ.
The first parts of the three-act play explore the heartbreaking choices and compromises Jekesai/Esther makes or refuses to make. She breaks from her family because she’s told that she must: they’re pagans. She takes the missionary seriously—maybe more seriously than he takes himself, as it turns out—when he says that he had to choose a new father for himself after his conversion. But she allows him to counsel her to compromise the Gospel when it comes to racism. He warns her that she can’t correct whites when they make mistakes about Scripture, and although she tries to argue that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, (importantly) male nor female… in the end she gives in.
This is not the last point at which colonial Rhodesia will place unbearable pressure on the Gospel, and on Jekesai/Esther’s faith. The play uncoils toward violence and an attempt at rebirth and renewal. The convert’s final choice is as complex as her initial conversion, if not more so.
I was oddly reminded of The Nun’s Story: There too the heroine’s final decision is the result of a lot of factors in her own life and in the complicities of the Church, but her crisis of faith reaches its climax during World War II, when a death in the nun’s family shakes her commitment to forgiveness of one’s enemies. To leave father and mother, but love your enemies—this is an overturning which can seem not merely radical but profoundly unjust. How much more so when the enemies themselves claim to be not only Christians but exemplary Christians, bringing the Gospel to the “savages”?
There are unforgettable characters here. Jekesai/Esther, played by Nancy Moricette, is luminous. Mistress Prudence, the iron-willed beauty with a fancy education and an ironic temperament, is an especially glorious theatrical creation. She’s the kind of character who seems like she’ll be too much of a muchness, but comes into her own as a character worthy of the great divas; she’s played here by Dawn Ursula, who makes her stagey on purpose, a performer at heart.
Gurira makes a few small missteps. There are a few clichéd lines: Mistress Prudence asks, “Where will it all end?” And the religion on display is oddly Protestantized for 19th-century Catholicism. Jekesai sings “Amazing Grace,” which works beautifully as a dramatic high point of the first act which is revisited and contrasted in the third, but it seems a bit post-Vatican II of her. The missionary also scolds her about “talking to the dead,” and prayer to the saints never comes up in their ensuing discussion. Gurira’s own family is Methodist and Catholic, and she herself is a Spiritual Christian, so she may have been mixing the traditions with which she was most familiar for dramatic effect.
These are quibbles, though. The Convert is a tough-minded, broken-hearted exploration of Christian faith under circumstances seemingly designed to destroy it. It’s the first part of a trilogy, and I can’t wait for Woolly to bring us the rest.