Emily Mann on The Convert

Just before rehearsals began, directing intern Daniel Tobin sat down with Emily Mann to discuss directing The Convert.

DT: What specifically about The Convert excites you so much?

EM: When I read it, I couldn’t believe that it was only her third play.  She had leapt so far from [her second play] Eclipsed, which I loved. The Convert is a classically well-made play, but without any of the old-fashioned trappings. It’s very rare to read a well made play anymore from a new writer because often people are trying to break form, or they write more in the form of movies or television, in a way that can be translated onto the stage.  But she did not do that. She wrote real scenes, with incredible wit, humor, intellect, drama, and passion.

Though you are reading the story of a young African woman, Shona woman, in Harare in 1895, you absolutely connect to her and her story. You understand colonialism from a unique perspective.  Danai can write this incredibly well made play, in English, with some Shona thrown in, and connect to it in a way that’s absolutely accessible, so that you become the African people from further back than the last century and think, “I get it. I understand it. I understand what happened and why.”

DT: What are some of the challenges you foresee in the rehearsal process, or in the play itself?

EM: We have had a workshop, so I feel very, very ready to jump into a full rehearsal period. When we started the workshop, there was so much Shona, which is the native language of these people.  I loved the idea of us hearing authentically who would be speaking accented English and  who would be speaking in Shona, but we didn’t want to use subtitles. So how do you have the Shona work, stay theatrical, and not be a barrier to the audience entering into the play? We cut it way back, and we really use the Shona in a way that through an action by a character or an actor on the stage. If the Shona says, “Take off your shirt and put this on,” you see that and so you don’t feel like, “I don’t really know what happened there.”

The other challenge is because the language is authentic and yet stylized at the same time, a lot of the humor comes from the malapropisms of the characters. And you don’t want to be sending them up; you really want to be hearing them, but at the same time to find it amusing and interesting, and make sure that you don’t lose respect for the characters while you are hearing them speak in malapropisms. It’s very, very subtly written and very intelligently written and it’s quite clever. So, to keep the humor in the right balance with the drama is going to be an interesting challenge.

Danai is a maniac for authentic detail and because she has just been in Zimbabwe for five weeks, she is going to be a lunatic when it comes to authenticity. She’s going to want everything exactly right, which I love. Every prop, every item that is on the stage or referred to is going to be extraordinarily well researched. There are all of those interesting cultural differences and subtleties that I’m looking forward to learning.

DT: Why do you think this story needs to be told now?

EM: Why is now the right time for this play? Well, in terms of the author, because this is her newest play, and she’s probably going to become one of the most important writers in the American canon. She’s going to be right up there if she keeps going, with the major playwright figures of the last forty years.

In terms of story, that’s a good question. I always think, when you write a history play, you’re really talking about now. So, the question of the people rising up against an oppressive regime, we’re seeing all over the world people rising up and protesting regimes that have kept them under. If you look at the whole so called Arab Spring, we don’t know what’s going to come of that, but this play helps you understand, from the inside, why people would say, “No, you cannot treat me in a less than human way. This is my country you cannot take this away from me.”

So, on the one hand, we’re looking at just despotism and tyranny. On the other hand, we’re looking at colonialism from the point of view of those who are being colonized. It’s very rare we see something that we understand from the inside out. Danai has a unique perspective being both Zimbabwean and American, being a great actress and a great writer, and someone who has a real mastery of the English language and theatrical English language. She can bring this to us alive, and passionate, and funny, and smart. I think it’s a rare opportunity for an audience to go and connect with this story. And of course, we have a very intelligent audience. I think they’re going to find it thrilling. It’s a journey I haven’t seen on film or in the theater.

DT: One thing that really interests me about this play is that it’s not set in the heart of colonial rule, but sort of on the precipice at the beginning. How do you think that affects the story?

EM: What I love about this play is that there are no angels and no villains. You are seeing why Christianity had the hold on Africa that it did, both for good and bad. Certainly, Danai, who is a devoutly religious woman, is very glad that Christianity came to Africa. And in a way, the play shows how the African church got formed. You see how the push and pull of the idea of what the traditional lifestyle, or traditional culture was, as opposed to the new Western culture, what was good and bad in one side and what was good and bad in the other.

You can understand the tension in a young girl who didn’t want to be the tenth wife of some old man in some village, and yet, the uncles had the power to basically enslave her, converting to Catholicism because there’s no such thing as polygamy in Catholicism. She was, as a woman, saved from the misogyny of her own culture. That’s where Danai is so brilliant. There is a complexity to how she looks at the situation I haven’t seen in a play, from the point of view that we’re hearing it from. We’re hearing from an African woman’s perspective, who’s also an American, whose primary language is English, tell us this story.