Joyce Owens Reviews ‘The Convert’ and ‘Camino Real’ at the Goodman Theatre

Joyce Owens

While Chilford (LeRoy McClain) tries to calm Uncle (Harold Surratt) and Kuda (Warner Miller), Mai Kuda (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) holds back Jekesai/Ester (Pascale Armand) during an argument in The Convert

It is practically sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll recently at the Goodman Theatre performances of Race, The Convert and Camino Real. These in-your-face, well-directed and acted plays have graced the stage in contemporary style, even as they address historic, fictional and re-envisioned plays. Not one was predictable; not one neglected to alter my thinking and afterwards stimulate excited discussions relating to the meaning of each and current or personal events. The three plays travel between quiet subversion in Race, to lengthy cultural conversion in The Convert, to surrealistic absurdity in Camino Real. I made a contribution on Race (and its run has ended), so I will share a few thoughts about the other two.

A well-earned standing ovation coupled with loud applause marked the culmination of the 3-hour performance of The Convert, and my realization that I stood with tears in my eyes slowly trailing down my cheeks.  I did not feel much like applauding, at first, because I was so sad, living this era through the well-crafted play by Danai Gurira, an Obie award winning actor turned playwright. I recognized the play’s truth and relevance over a century past the original point in history. So, besides applauding, I was tempted to stamp my feet and yell out loud in recognition of the gift that had been bestowed on the audience…

During those hours that, surprisingly, flew by, I experienced a painful reminder of colonial African history –the play is set between 1895-1897. Coinciding with post-Emancipation in America, The Convert presents a small reminder about the strife, distrust, and destruction of lifestyles and wealth that comes with the belief that one culture is inherently superior to another.  Salisbury, now Hare, Zimbabwe in Southern Africa is the locale. After succumbing to the inevitability of colonization , many of its victims were convinced, as the slaves in America sometimes were, that they only had to adapt to the religion, manner of dressing, language and mores to become “civilized” and worthy to mingle with their ”superior” new masters, subjugating the traditions the Africans knew were also valid.

Prudence (Zainab Jah) receives comfort from Chilford (LeRoy McClain) in The Convert

A small cast allows us precious time with each actor, each a snapshot of a type that describes a complicated time. Mai Kuda (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) is our first memorable personality who displays the authentic South African dialects the actors acquired and the play’s sense of humor within its despair.  Then I was briefly shocked as the youthful Jekesai (Pascale Armand) enters, her given name is immediately discarded and replaced by the Biblical name Esther when she arrives to be saved from a forced marriage to Uncle (Harold Surrat). I saw Esther as the essence of purity in her traditional garb, an Eve in the Garden of Eden before the fall. She is offered an education that she embraces fully to become a better missionary than her mentor, Chilford (LeRoy McClain). Her Machiavelli and aspiring Catholic priest Chilford is a true-believer, sincere and naïve, he teaches Esther about Christ.

André De Shields takes center stage at the Fiesta in Calixto Bieito’s reimagined production of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real

Experiencing Esther’s transformation after escaping from Uncle and living with Mai, she dresses in British clothing and manages to find her strength. I was pleased that three contrasting women are represented, first Mai and Esther and later Prudence (Zainab Jah), who provides another view of black colonial womanhood. This diversity is significant as we celebrate women this month. The male characters, including Prudence’s fiancé The Chancellor (Kevin Mambo) struck me as weaker, bringing to mind Oprah Winfrey’s The Color Purple. The storyline rings timeless, as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. You can’t beat the luxury of entertainment combined with a history lesson that opens our eyes to an intimate slice of humanity, unless you can’t sit still for the three hour play that includes two intermissions.

Camino Real

Lord Byron (Mark L. Montgomery) decides to leave the Camino Real

Opening smoky and blue, an eerily Tennessee Williams looking drunk is center stage, sexy until he threw up!  “Old men have no fools except themselves,” he gurgles. Camino Real (1953), by Tennessee Williams and directed by Calixto Bieito who, with March Rosich re-envisioned the play, provided visual stimulation to spare including an industrial strength changing light show that could be part of a Great America ride as easily as an installation in the Museum of Contemporary Art. A set in constant motion, the light show (cliché alert!) was its own character, and a host of vivid, surreal players who might seem familiar, but who you mostly hope don’t show up for Christmas dinner. This play may be absurd, but nearly real fantasies elicit groans and laughter and a freedom to not understand it, just enjoying the experience.  The content is strange, stream-of-conscious, non-linear, avant-garde, postmodern and either reflects a dream state or a drug-induced hallucination with elements of acrobatics a la Cirque Du Soleil, a bit of the good ol’ Chicago Blues, and the purgatory streets you might imagine under a deserted Chicago viaduct. The highlight of an overall amazing experience was a musical rendition of “I Put a Spell on You” by Baron De Charlus (André De Shields) who extends one bold note of his delivery for four measures without a hint he couldn’t hold it longer if he chose to.

To experience all the characters in the play visit goodmantheatre.org

To borrow 1960’s parlance, it was a happening.