‘Convert’ actor preaches power of storytelling

Opening tomorrow night, “The Convert” tells the story of a Shona girl choosing between her faith and her people.

Making its Philadelphia premier, “The Convert” will open tomorrow at the Wilma Theater. Presented by Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company from Washington, D.C. “The Convert” deals with issues of identity within the realms of race and religion. The play is written by Danai Gurira, who people may know from her portrayal of Michonne in the third season of “The Walking Dead” on AMC.

The Temple News caught up with Nancy Moricette, who originated the lead role of Jekesai/Ester in the original production, about her role, moving the show to Philadelphia and the power of storytelling.

The Temple News: Tell us about “The Convert.”

Nancy Moricette: “The Convert” is a play written by Danai Gurira, she is a pretty amazing playwright who identifies as a Zimbabwean-American. It takes place in Salsibury, [Rhodesia – now known as Harare, Zimbabwe] and depicts the life of the Shona people. It focuses on a young girl named Jekesai, which means “to illumninate.”

Her father passes away at the beginning of the play and in the Shona culture the eldest brother – in this case her uncle – becomes her guardian. He is a drunkard and wants to marry [Jekesai] off to a very old man, but her aunt does not approve so she take Jekesai to the village and sends Jekesai to the village so that she can serve in a household of black catechist by the name of Chilford.

That’s kind of how the play opens. Jekesai has been exposed to Catholicism and has to make the decision as to whether or not she’s going to fully convert to Catholicism or fully retain her heritage. There’s a lot more that goes on the play like colonialism, Catholicism, assimilation and more.

TTN: How was it getting into character for Jekesai?

NM: It’s a pretty amazing process, period. I don’t want to say I fully identify with this character but I’m grateful I have the opportunity to portray a character like this twice because I’m a person who identifies as Haitian-American. I was born in American, but I was raised Haitian in Little Haiti in Miami, Florida. It’s not easy when you’re an “other” in America. There’s an assumption that, “if I’m around black people then we’ll all just get along.”

[When I was growing up in Florida] I felt like I had to choose between American customs and Haitian customs, and there’s a lot of guilt attached to that. When you get older into your 20s you wonder, “Why do I have all this heaviness in my heart?” For me personally, I realized I had sacrificed a lot of my culture in order to gain acceptance into American society. So that [experience] was really helpful in exploring this character.

The theme of religion has also always been a part of my life, like, “What does it mean to follow a faith and not a man?” To believe in an ideology, but not something that’s being manipulated by mankind. That is really hard to do every night, but I’m really grateful for the opportunity.

TTN: What’s it been like transferring the show from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia?

NM: I was a little nervous about doing the same role again but I am grateful audiences in Philadelphia have been very welcoming – Wilma Theater in particular has been innovative and receptive, which I think is really important to do this type of work that focuses on the themes that cross cultural boundaries and cross into people’s comfort zones and get into things that people don’t necessarily really want to talk about. Wooly Mammoth and Wilma Theater have been very receptive to having these conversations and educating themselves, and challenging themselves to become better people. I think that [combination of things] results in it being very comfortable for me to be here. I sort of feel like I’m in dream land.

TTN: Is there a particular part of your character that is more difficult for you to tap into every night?

NM: If I were to really be honest I would say the hardest part for me is this girl, she has real faith. I was crying the other day because I was watching Malala [Yousafzai] on [The Daily Show with Jon Stewart]. She’s 16-years-old, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and last year she was shot in the head but her conviction is so powerful. It’s really hard for me every day to tap into what it’s like to be in a situation where I can literally be killed because I don’t want to [put my beliefs aside].

TTN: Is there something you hope the audience gets after seeing this?

NM: I’m a really big fan of people telling their stories. I’m a youth advocate and a teaching artist when I’m not an actor. I work with a lot of different demographics across a lot of different communities. It’s always scary going into different communities, because I think, “I’m not their color, I haven’t had their experience, they’re gonna not be receptive.” But I’ll tell you what, anytime I give them the opportunity to share their story or a part of their life, a barrier gets taken down. So if anything gets taken away from this play is that the people in the audience hear the story and have one less barrier when it comes to dealing with Africa, or one less barrier when it comes to dealing with people of different religions or people of different colors. That’s really my main hope.

We have so many barriers in this country, it’s really hard to partake in a dialogue, that’s what I love so much about theater – the wonderful ability to bring people that don’t like each other together and have them all listen one story. I mean, how else does that happen? [The government] is currently shut down because people can’t do that.

Luis Fernando Rodriguez can be reached at luis.fernando@temple.edu or on Twitter @theluisfernando.

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