Cultivating The Convert - by Carrie Hughes

Our third play of the season, The Convert, brings playwright Danai Gurira’s work to our mainstage for the first time, directed by Emily Mann.  Set in 1896 in what is modern day Zimbabwe, The Convert tells the story of Jekesai, a young woman fleeing a forced marriage in her native village.  Brought to the home of Chilford, an African Catholic catechist, and moved by genuine faith and a glimpse at the education and possibilities this new world offers her, Jekesai, renamed Ester, embraces Catholicism and Jesus. When a violent uprising against colonial white rule disrupts their lessons, Ester and Chilford must choose between people they love, and confront the changes that threaten their deepest loyalties.

While The Convert is Danai’s first play on our mainstage, she’s a familiar presence in McCarter’s Lab activities, and her path to production is a window in to the occasionally mysterious new play development process. McCarter provides artists with a variety of tools and opportunities, customizing and not dictating a set path.  We make resources available, build a relationship, ask good questions, have faith and trust that the work will follow. Danai has managed to try out just about every tool in our arsenal—and the work has been extraordinary.

The McCarter artistic staff first became aware of Danai with her first play, In the Continuum, which she co-wrote and performed with collaborator Nikkole Salter. Captivated by her story telling, we invited Danai to McCarter to participate in one of our Lab Festival events, in which writers read from works in progress.  The piece she performed—a monologue by a teenage girl soldier in Liberia—was shocking and compelling (and funny).  Immediately, we knew we wanted to go further with the play and support this writer.  Trained as an actress, and born in America but raised in Zimbabwe, Danai has a unique voice and perspective.  So we did what we often do when beginning a relationship with an artist: we asked what she needed. At that time she needed support to travel to Liberia to continue her research. We sponsored Danai’s application for a travel grant from Theater Communications Group, which she received. The monologue expanded—and within the year she brought us her first draft of Eclipsed, the story of a group of women caught up in Liberia’s civil war. The 2008 Lab Festival included a reading and one excited conversation in the back of the theater later, Eclipsed became the centerpiece of the 2009 Lab Festival.

In that workshop production we provided a talented equity cast, a director known for her dramaturgical skills (Liesl Tommy), a dramaturg (Carrie Hughes) with whom Danai would begin a long-term collaboration, a design team and barebones design budget, three weeks of rehearsals, and eleven performances in the Berlind rehearsal room. In the rehearsal room, in conversations with McCarter’s artistic staff, and with the eventual addition of a smart Princeton audience (maybe you got to see it?), Danai learned things about her play that she brought to her rewriting.  And rewrite she did—the list of changes ran eight pages, single spaced.  The Lab Festival helped launch Eclipsed, both by helping Danai strengthen her script and by bringing it to the attention of a wider audience—in the next season it was produced at Yale Rep, Woolly Mammoth in DC and Center Theatre Group in LA. 

Building on the relationship we’d begun, we invited Danai to join us in Princeton that summer for our artists’ retreat, a ten day event in which we house writers at Princeton’s Palmer House bed and breakfast and give them as much support or space as they’d like. Among the projects she worked on was her newest play, The Convert, a commission for Center Theatre Group.  McCarter and CTG teamed up to support Danai in the manner we hoped would serve her work best and a cross country collaboration ensued (eventually we were joined by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago). We were off (and traveling)! There was a summer workshop in LA, two fall readings in Princeton, a short Chicago workshop at the Goodman (in January—such is our devotion to Danai that both literary director Carrie Hughes and producing director Mara Isaacs spent the weekend in Chicago in January!), and a longer one in Los Angeles in April directed by Emily Mann (that one wasn’t quite the same level of physical sacrifice). There were several long coffee dates in which Emily and Carrie talked through the play with Danai.  At each step, challenged by the questions and reflections of her collaborators, Danai refined and deepened her play—considering the role of characters, the use of the Shona language, the tightness of the dialogue, the rhythm of the action, even the placement of intermissions. This winter the world premiere production of The Convert will travel from Princeton to Chicago to LA, and no doubt change along the way.

The Convert is the first in a planned series of Zimbabwe plays. We hope to be involved in their development and, perhaps, their eventual production.  Danai is part of the McCarter artistic family—we can’t wait to introduce her to you!