Month: March 2013

Did you know Michonne from ‘The Walking Dead’ is a playwright too?

Posted by – March 3, 2013

Woolly Mammoth's The Convert

I’ve made a pretty concerted effort to track down theatre options since moving to D.C. from Chicago about a year ago. We caught the “Ethereal Encounters” shorts at the Source Festival, Laura Marks’ “Bethany” at City Center in Manhattan and two shows from the current season at Woolly Mammoth downtown. The morning I rode the bus out to O’Hare to pick up my rental van to come here, I actually had the pleasure of sitting next to one of my favorite cast members from Chicago’s Neo-Futurists. We swapped some perspectives on Chicago vs. D.C. topics, and she recommended putting Woolly on my list after I got settled.

Admittedly, I waited most of the year before finally getting tickets, but “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” was about everything a theatre junkie with a ingrained fondess for professional wrestling tropes could ask for. The play introduced a season of shows that frame cultural perspectives in situations of conflict with larger power structures, and on Saturday afternoon we sat down for another installment in the series—Danai Gurira’s “The Convert.”

Gurira, of course, is already, an accomplished playwright, but as a Robert Kirkman reader and “Walking Dead” watcher, I knew her work best from her role as Michonne on AMC.

“The Convert” was a great change of pace from the other recent shows I’ve checked out. It takes place in what’s now Zimbabwe, tackles the familial and cultural contradictions that British colonial occupation and Catholic missionary work introduced, and seems like the kind of story that could resonate even more powerfully as a contextual narrative if the next pope comes from Africa (and incidentally might not necessarily be the first African pope).

Director Michael John Garces did a tremendous job staging this show on Misha Kachman’s set. Crosses appear all over and within one another in the shapes, and the protruding plank into the audience provides some well-constructed depth and emotional weight to the play’s key moments.

A few of the casting choices were stronger than others, but the outpouring of soulful earnestness from actress Nancy Moricette, the visible internal conflict exhibited by actor Irungu Mutu, and a spectacularly understated and complex character performance by Dawn Ursula leave lasting impressions to walk away with.

It’s a play that uses blood and emotion to make its case in an indictment against colonialism—which I get. For me what this play did even more importantly, however, was to articulate the way familial and ancestral relationships were reconstructed for converts by Catholicism as a part of an over-arching forced integration of materialist and capitalist value systems that along with missionary work gave occupying sources their own narrative for justifying control over land and natural resources. In that respect, I didn’t encounter anything new or revelatory about the whats or whys of colonialism in “The Convert,” but the play did get under the skin of the hows and whos.

As a whole, I’d be interested in seeing a reworked version of the show if it ever goes through some editing and rewrites, particularly in the third act. There were some moments in the climactic exchanges where the actors’ emotions seemed to lack framework within the script to express what they were really feeling, and given their obvious physical acting talents that were present throughout the rest of the show, I left with the impression that something about what was going on could have been staged or better scripted to refine what was being communicated.

Nevertheless, it was a moving play. I have some reservations about Mike Daisey and will likely skip the next production at Woolly Mammoth, but I’ll definitely be back eventually.