CAMBRIDGE — In projected text culled from the playwright’s preface, the audience for “The Convert” is cued to expect a morally righteous but dramatically stilted battle cry. “The iron claw of colonization is bracing to form a fist,” it reads, in part, but “. . . the sons and daughters of this ancient soil were on the cusp of a battle to reclaim their freedoms.”
And so the rhetorical trumpets blast.
But the considerable effectiveness of Danai Gurira’s 2012 play comes largely in how it sets up the audience for an unambiguous clash between good and evil, then encourages it to root — much of the time, at least — for the African natives who collaborate with the odious foreign rule.
Seen in an Underground Railway Theater production directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, “The Convert” turns on the ways by which identity is forged in the crucible of religion and politics. The three-act drama (whose brisk movement cloaks a run-time of a bit under three hours) is more a look at the ethics of self-preservation than a strident political tract. Sandberg-Zakian’s fluid, unfussy direction, and the performances of a uniformly outstanding ensemble, do well to leave the audience with more questions than answers.
“The Convert” opens in 1895, in what is present-day Zimbabwe. Chilford (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) is a local authority, an African empowered by the British, who leads a Roman Catholic ministry. He sees his efforts — represented tangibly by his well-appointed home, rendered convincingly by scenic designer Jenna McFarland Lord — as a bulwark against the local Shona people and their ancient ways. He and chum Chancellor (Equiano Mosieri) dress like Victorian gentlemen and speak in a precisely enunciated but syntactically wobbly English. Like Chancellor’s fiancée Prudence (Nehassaiu deGannes), they’ve willfully endured irrevocable separation from their families to adopt a lifestyle they see as a distinct improvement from that of their brethren, whom they now call “savages.”
Though rigid and zealous, Chilford is a force for progress when he accepts into his home a young girl, Jekesai (Adobuere Ebiama), whose family would marry her off to a much older villager for the bride-price of several goats. Jekesai claims a desire to learn about Jesus and becomes Chilford’s best student and protégé. But the opportunity to receive an education comes with a compulsory new identity — she takes the name Ester, and regretfully forgoes crucial family ceremonies to honor her ancestors.
There seems to be no middle ground — maintain the old order, complete with cruel superstitions along with enriching cultural continuity, or be branded a bafu, a traitor. Yet what glory is to be found in a local resistance promising violent mob rule?
Ebiama is convincing as the conflicted girl, though the playwright unfortunately locates the resolution of her crisis offstage, in a manner that seems wildly out of character. (A narrative diversion also saps the play of momentum in the late going.) Chunks of text are in Shona, but the import is always clear, particularly in exchanges between Jekesai/Ester and Mai Tamba (Liana Asim, excellent), her aunt and Chilford’s housekeeper, whose sublimated loyalty to the old ways is always underfoot.
Parent can pack a soliloquy into a wordless stare, and he uncorks several keepers here. The rigidity Chilford enforces upon his inner life is counterbalanced by wide-open eyes hinting at a part of him aching to escape. When Prudence offers surprising generosity at a key moment, Parent’s look of amazement mixes outrage, surprise, and resignation.
The play’s titular convert is ostensibly Jekesai/Ester, but in its closing moments we’re reminded that it refers to Chilford as well. One may create a new identity, Gurira suggests, but the voices of the ancestors can never be quieted.
Play by Danai Gurira. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Feb. 28. Tickets: 617-576-9278, www.centralsquaretheater.org
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.