Colonial History, Through The Eyes Of The Colonized

Feb 10, 2012

Actor and writer Danai Gurira sometimes refers to herself as a "Zimerican": She was born in Iowa, but spent most of her childhood in Harare, Zimbabwe — where her new play, The Convert, is set.

"I grew up there from age 5 to 19," Gurira says. "I'm back there every year, but I feel like there are things that I had to dig out through this process of creating this play."

Gurira says The Convert started out as a kind of melding of what she calls her "neo-colonial education" with colonial history — George Bernard Shaw meeting her great-grandparents' generation.

"I was thinking one day, and I was like, I want to make a play that's sort of ... an adaptation of Pygmalion, about Zimbabwe, because I just feel like there are so many parallel themes," Gurira says. "That's really where it was born from, and then it just took its own route."

In Pygmalion, Henry Higgins takes a poor flower girl named Eliza Doolittle and teaches her to speak the king's English. In The Convert, Jekesai, a young woman from the Shona people, runs away from an arranged marriage and is taken under the wing of a black Catholic missionary named Chilford.

Gurira uses her own family history in the play — her great-great aunt became a nun, fleeing a forced betrothal. Director Emily Mann says this was a common occurrence in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was once called) in the late 19th century, when the play is set.

"There were many, many women who ran to the church — some of them became nuns, some of them became teachers — basically so that they could be free," Mann says. "Women were often fleeing being sold off ... or being given away, without their own permission, to be ... as in this play, the 10th wife of an old man."

Jekesai — or Ester, as she's christened by her protectors — adapts quickly to her new situation.

"She's learned a whole new language," says Pascale Armand, who plays Jekesai. "She's learned about a whole new religion, which she has put complete and utter faith in ... [put] her life into this new way of thinking and new way of believing."

Leading her in this transformation is Chilford, who has renounced his own family and traditions. While his deepest desire is to become a priest, few black Africans were ordained in those days.

Gurira says that while Chilford is a decent and well-meaning man, "he's a casualty, one could say, of the issue of colonization, in the sense that he really drinks all the Kool-Aid — like every last drop of it — and really [embraces], hook, line and sinker, the idea that a Christian God is very intertwined with the white man."

That gap between doctrine and reality, black and white, twists the characters like pretzels. For instance, Chilford reacts furiously when Ester corrects a white priest in church, but Armand says the village girl, who's encountering colonial prejudice for the first time, doesn't understand why she has to defer.

"I have no understanding of racism," says Armand, speaking for her character. "This is my first introduction to that term, to that ideology that I now have to deal with and be subservient to."

While white characters are discussed onstage, The Convert is told entirely from the black viewpoint. In an early draft of the play, Gurira says, she attempted to write a scene with Chilford's white mentor.

"I actually tried, I tried, I tried to put him on the stage, and I was like, 'No! It's gonna be an absolute caricature, I'm not gonna be able!' And it didn't make sense. It just didn't make sense," Gurira says.

As The Convert unfolds over three highly intense hours, tensions in the society erupt. In the second act, the audience learns that Chilford's mentor has been killed. Soon it becomes clear that, unlike Shaw's Pygmalion, this is a tragedy. Blood will be spilled, lives will be ruined.

"You begin to understand, from the colonized, what colonialism really is," says Emily Mann. "Because Danai's too smart to make it 'one person's right and one person's wrong,' or black and white in any way — she's so interested in gray areas. She's so interested in how messy human beings really are."

Even though The Convert is set in the late 19th century, Gurira thinks it has relevance to the problems of contemporary Zimbabwe.

"What dynamics of our traditions do we retain? And what are we retaining only because we got colonized?" Gurira asks. "There was this huge gap that happened, in terms of how we were taken over, and we were not able to evolve in our way, in our own time."

Gurira says The Convert is the first in a series of plays she hopes to write about Zimbabwe. She wants to look at life during colonial times throughout the 20th century, and she's been interviewing people — including her parents, who grew up during the 1950s — whenever she returns home.

"It's kind of frightening to think of how much there is to write about," Gurira says. "It'll take my whole lifetime and probably a couple more to really get into all of these stories and all of the experiences of what is now Zimbabwe. It's such a fascinating navigation and fusion of cultures and experiences and voices."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we'll meet a playwright who's been thinking about one of the more dramatic stories in Africa in the 19th century. It was the white colonization of the country that was, for a time, known as Rhodesia. The playwright turned that history into a visceral new play now on stage in Princeton, New Jersey. Whether you're ever able to see "The Convert" or not, it is worth hearing the story of its author.

Here's Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Playwright Danai Gurira sometimes refers to herself as a Zimerican. While she was born in Iowa, she spent most of her childhood in her parents' home city: Harare, Zimbabwe. It's where her new play is set.

DANAI GURIRA: I grew up there from age five to 19, I'm back there every year. But I feel like there are things that I had to dig out through this process of creating this play. And, for some reason, I wasn't exposed to a lot – just in terms of how, you know, I was educated. I was educated very much in a neo-colonial way, honestly.

LUNDEN: Gurira says "The Convert" is the first play in a series she hopes to write about Zimbabwe, through the eyes of the people whose lives were transformed by Colonialism.

GURIRA: I was thinking one day and I was, like, I want to make a play that's sort of like an adaptation of "Pygmalion," about Zimbabwe. Because I just feel like there's so many parallel themes. And that's really where it was born from and then it just took its own route.

LUNDEN: In "Pygmalion," Henry Higgins takes a poor flower girl named Eliza Doolittle and teaches her to speak the King's English. In "The Convert," a young woman from the Shona tribe, Jekesai, runs away from an arranged marriage and is taken under the wing of a black Catholic missionary named Chilford.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE CONVERT")

LEROY MCCLAIN: (as Chilford) Well, the first of things that must be done is that name must be changed. You need a name that expresses a Christian faith. Mary, mother of Jesus, is the most blessed name. But I just named another girl that this afternoon. Ah, there is Ruth, but I hate names of monosyllables. So, Ester...

LUNDEN: Gurira uses her own family history in the play. Her great-great aunt became a nun, fleeing a forced betrothal. Director Emily Mann says this was a common occurrence in Rhodesia in the late 19th century, when the play is set.

EMILY MANN: There were many, many women who ran to the church – some of them became nuns, some of them became teachers – basically, so that they could be free. You know, women were often fleeing being sold off, in a way, or being given away without their own permission to a man to be, you know, could be, as in this play, the 10th wife of an old man.

LUNDEN: And Jekesai or Ester, as she's christened, adapts quickly to her new situation. Pascale Armand plays the teenage girl.

PASCALE ARMAND: She's learned a whole new language. She's learned about a whole new religion, which she has put complete and utter faith in; like, puts her life into this new way of thinking and new way of believing.

LUNDEN: Leading her in this transformation is Chilford, who has renounced his own family and tribal traditions. And while his deepest desire is to become a priest, few black Africans were ordained in those days. He's a decent and well-meaning man, playwright Danai Gurira says, but...

GURIRA: He's a casualty, one could say, of the issue of colonization, in the sense that he really drinks all the Kool-Aid, like every last drop of it; really embracing, hook, line and sinker, the idea that a Christian god is very intertwined with the white man.

LUNDEN: The gap between doctrine and reality, black and white, causes the characters to be twisted like pretzels. For instance, Chilford is furious at Ester for correcting a white priest in church. But actress Pascale Armand says the village girl doesn't understand why she has to defer.

ARMAND: I have no understanding of racism. This is my first introduction to that term, to that ideology that I now have to deal with and be subservient to and, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE CONVERT")

ARMAND: (as Ester) You taught me that we must never (unintelligible) tolerance of the misquoting of the Bible in our presence.

MCCLAIN: (as Chilford) Yeah, but...

ARMAND: (as Ester) You told me that because of that circumstance, we must be quick to correct, to be of certainty that the Lord's word is never in distortion. That is what I am believed that I did.

MCCLAIN: (as Chilford) Yes, but not to Father Bart.

ARMAND: (as Ester) May I be asking why?

MCCLAIN: (as Chilford) Why? Is it not in the obvious? He is a white.

ARMAND: (as Ester) He is?

MCCLAIN: (as Chilford) So you may never correct him.

LUNDEN: While white characters are discussed onstage, "The Convert" is told entirely from the black viewpoint. In an early draft of the play, Gurira says she attempted to write a scene with Chilford's white mentor.

GURIRA: I actually tried. I tried. I tried to put him on the stage. And I was like, no, it's going to be an absolute caricature. I'm not going to be able - and it didn't make sense. It just didn't make sense. I was like, this is going to be the play from the colonized perspective.

LUNDEN: The tensions in the society erupt and, in the second act, the audience finds out that Chilford's mentor has been killed. And, as "The Convert" unfolds, in highly intense fashion over the course of three hours, it becomes clear that, unlike Shaw's "Pygmalion," this is a tragedy; blood will be spilled, lives will be ruined. Director Emily Mann.

MANN: You begin to understand, from the colonized, what colonialism really is. And because Danai's too smart to make it one person's right and one person's wrong, or black and white in any way – she's so interested in grey areas. She's so interested in how messy human beings really are.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE CONVERT")

KEVIN MAMBO: (as Chancellor) Things are not good brother.

MCCLAIN: (as Chilford) Oh, what happened to your head, man? Have a seat man.

MAMBO: (as Chancellor) The rebellion, it has spread. It is now certain to us here in Mashonaland.

MCCLAIN: (as Chilford) The Shona, never; they are too docile. That cannot be of true.

MAMBO: (as Chancellor) It is. The first family was already slaughtered.

LUNDEN: Even though "The Convert" is set in the late 19th century, Danai Gurira thinks it has relevance to the problems of contemporary Africa.

GURIRA: What dynamics of our traditions do we retain? And what are we retaining only because we got colonized? And so, there was this huge, you know, stop gap that happened, in terms of how we were taken over. And we were not able to evolve in our way, in our own time.

LUNDEN: "The Convert" finishes its run in Princeton this Sunday. It then moves on to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Centre Theatre Group in Los Angeles.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.