Richard Steele weighs in on 'The Convert'

March 6, 2012

I’m wondering - as I get older - whether I’m beginning to see more things through the prism of "race," or has there really been an increase in things written, talked about and presented theatrically that have racial themes. 

I had a very visceral reaction to the world premiere of The Convert now playing at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre. The play was a mash-up of colonialism, racism, religion and culture. It was also the most intense three hours of theater I’ve seen in a long time. 

The Convert succeeds in providing a much-needed historical perspective on the issue of apartheid in South Africa before it became an official government policy. The theater-goer will leave with a clearer understanding of how and why the clash between white South African politics and black South African culture became so violent. In this respect, The Convert will both inform and infuriate. 

But more than many other productions I’ve seen where race is the centerpiece, this play examines the deeper aspects of each character's motives for actions he or she takes … or does not take. It also manages to create a balance between betrayal that can occur in the name of black "self interest" and the bonds of family loyalty.

The writer, actors and the director are to be congratulated on a job well-done. When I started to write about this play, I considered not mentioning the length of this work, for fear that it might discourage some people from seeing it. But let me assure you that you’ll never be bored, get sleepy or want to leave the theater before the conclusion of "Act III." 

I’m no theater critic, but I know what touches my inner being. The Convert manages to do that by connecting with a laundry list of human emotions. I don’t necessarily think that a person has to be black to understand and appreciate the occasional humor and the magnitude  of tragedy these characters experience psychologically and physically. But as an African-American,  I’m guessing that my feelings reached a different emotional peak than people who have never experienced overt racism. 

I’d be very surprised if this play didn’t make it to the Broadway stage. Maybe you should see it now, in Chicago. Save the plane fare you’d spend on a trip to New York.