‘Convert’ offers a thrilling clash of cultures

Marin Theatre Company has assembled a spectacular cast of resident and guest actors to breathe impassioned life into Danai Gurira’s “The Convert.”

Set in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the twilight of the 19th century, “The Convert” thrillingly explores the price of ideological conversion, whether enforced or embraced, with seven interlocked characters representing a broad spectrum of views.

Chilford is an aspiring missionary who has completely embraced European customs, as have his friend Chancellor and Prudence, Chancellor’s fiancé.

Chilford’s maid, Mai Tamba, pays disinterested lip-service to Christianity, but uses it as a ploy to secure refuge for her niece, Jekesai, recently rescued by her son, Tamba, from a forced marriage brokered by Uncle, the family patriarch.

Jekesai is christened Ester, after the biblical character who fights a genocide of her people, and moves from confusion to discovery, fulfillment, conflict loss and doubt. It is a glorious journey in the hands of the transcendent Katherine Renee Turner, filled with passionate conviction and hard-won wisdom.

Pulling her to “the white,” Jabari Brisport imbues Chilford with the benignly pompous arrogance of the newly assimilated. He tolerates use of “the vernacular” – a disparaging reference to tribal languages – only if it serves further proselytization.

As the engaged couple, Omoze Idehenre and Jefferson A. Russell provide a marvelous study in conflict. Russell is a marvelously venal Chancellor, whose locution and dazzling smile mask a self-serving hybrid of old and new cultures. Idehenre’s Prudence is worldly-wise and pityingly self-destructive in a flawless and fascinating performance.

Clinging to her culture, Elizabeth Carter plays Mai Tamba with sly wisdom, blind faith and determination. As her son, the regal and compelling JaBen Early is a logical man driven to deeply passionate acts.

In a small but masterful turn, with a sartorial tip of the top hat to Baron Samedi, the redoubtable L. Peter Callendar as Uncle needs no skeletal make-up to play menace laced with charm, wreaking a vengeful resistance to the oppression of his rights.

<p> The three acts flow easily thanks to a steady hand but light touch from director Jasson Minadakis. The physical production is clean and spare, with Nina Ball’s sets and Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes creating a perfect visual tone that is ably augmented by Gabe Maxson (lights) and Chris Houston (music and sound). Special recognition for spot-on vocal coaching goes to Lynne Soffer.

Playwright Gurira, who spent her youth in Zimbabwe, is best known for portraying the katana-wielding Michonne on AMC’s hit series “The Walking Dead.” She began writing plays to create more compelling audition pieces for herself. In the process, she has created exciting theater that speaks with a refreshing eloquence and authenticity.

REVIEW

The Convert

Where: Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 15

Tickets: $20 to $58

Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org

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