Pre-Show Preparation, Questions for Discussion, and Activities
Note to Educators: Use the following assignments, questions, and activities to introduce your students to The Convert and its intellectual and artistic origins, context, and themes, as well as to engage their imaginations and creativity before they see the production.
- The Convert: Web Site Basics. Explore the wealth of information on this world-premiere production on McCarter’s The Convert website. Share with your students the articles illuminating the historical context of the play, glossary and timeline resources, and print and video interviews with various members of the creative team and cast, including playwright, Danai Gurira and director Emily Mann. Reading aloud the articles and investigating the various resources available will not only pique their interest, but also spark and fuel full-class and small-group discussion before coming to the theatre.
- Revealing (the) Title: What's in a Name? Have your students consider the title of Gurira’s play, The Convert, and its potential meanings and themes:
- Instruct students to look up the definition of the word "convert" and as a class consider its various and related forms (e.g., convert, as both noun and verb; conversion; convertible; convertibility).
- Ask them to discuss where they have encountered—in their reading or studies or personal experience—the topic/theme of converts, conversion, convertibility, etc.
- What positive and negative implications/ramifications surface around this topic/theme?
- Next read them this brief synopsis of The Convert: In 1895 in the region that would become Zimbabwe, a girl is forced to choose between her family’s traditions and the Christian faith and Western values she has embraced. Ask students to project what cultural and religious concerns and conflicts they might see played out in the story and characters of the play as described.
- A Blending of Languages: Shona and English. Having set the story of her play in Zimbabwe in the late 1890’s, playwright Danai Gurira, decided: “There was absolutely no way I could write this play with the Shona not being there…I think that it’s an element that is not only crucial and essential, but is also enriching for the Western ear.” The Covert features bilingual characters, Gurira’s unique blending of languages, dialects, and accents, and, often, the Shona language spoken with no translation prompts in English provided. According to Gurira:
Meaningful communication is an aspect of who we are as human being. You don’t need to know exactly what everyone’s saying word for word to hear it, to see people living in a different world and to hear that they don’t speak American English. And you know, I think people will think, “I get what’s going on,” and that’s what’s awesome. I don’t need to hear every single word, don’t need it to be spelled out for me. Audiences, I think, are much smarter than we give them credit for.
Share the above quotations from Gurira with your students. Then, to prepare them for the experience of hearing the play, introduce your students to the Shona language by listening to the English and Shona language clips made by Zimbabwean speakers below, which were provided by The Convert’s vocal and dialect coach, Beth McGuire. (In advance of listening to the clips, ask students to try to focus more upon the storytellers’ language/speech than on the content of the stories themselves. It might be useful to play each clip twice to acclimate acclimatize students’ ears and allow them to focus on language/speech over content.)
- After each clip, ask students to reflect on any observations they made about their experience of listening to the Shona-English speakers speak.
- After listening to all of the clips, ask your students to discuss what it is like to listen to two languages being spoken at the same time, including one that you don’t understand.
- Ask students to consider, in advance of experiencing the play, how Gurira’s blending of languages and accent (i.e., English with a Shona accent) might serve the playwright in the telling of her story and in her artistic task of creating the world of the play.
- Scene Study #1: Act One, Scene One. To fully appreciate playwright Danai Gurira’s unique and exciting dramatic voice and to experience and explore her approach to constructing dialogue and her blending of languages—English and Shona—and dialects and accents to tell the story of The Convert, have your students read aloud, round-robin style (i.e., instead of assigning roles, the next student in the reading circle assumes the next line) from the excerpt from the opening scene of the play.
Scene study notes/suggestions:
- Give students a few minutes to leaf through the script before beginning the reading.
- Point out to them that Shona dialogue is distinguished by the use of italics, and that for most lines printed in Shona, an English translation is provided in brackets [ ] and emboldened type. For the reading students should read the English translation whenever provided, and do their bests to pronounce the Shona for which no translation is provided.
- Also, call their attention to character voices whose English is affected by an accent. For example, Mai Tamba, who speaks English with a Shona accent, says to Chilford on pg. 3, column one, “No smell, Masta. Today you eat fast.” (i.e., “No smell, Master. Today you eat first.”) and in column two, “You say you need someone cook, someone crean rike at Fatha Hem’s house.” (i.e., You say you need someone cook [to] cook, someone [to] clean like at Father Helm’s house.)
- Sometimes Gurira indicates the character’s intended word by including it in brackets after the spoken word; for example, on pg. 3, Mai Tamba’s first speech begins, “She need onry little, she smar [small] gir…” which would be read, “She need onry litte, she smar gir…”
- Students should read the words as phonetically written by Gurira, embracing the playwright’s indication of how the character’s speech is intended to sound.
- Note that // indicates an overlapping of dialogue. When a double slash occurs in a character’s speech, this indicates that the next character’s line should begin and overlap the rest of the previous speaker’s dialogue.
After reading the scene:
- First ask students to reflect upon their experience of the story of the play, its setting, and its characters:
- What or who engaged and interested you? Why?
- Which character would you be the most interested in portraying? Why?
- Where any questions evoked in the course of the scene?
- Did anything confuse you?
- Can you project what might happen next in the story?
- Then ask students to reflect specifically on their experience of the language/ dialogue of the play.
- What joys and challenges did you experience in your cold (i.e., unpracticed) reading of the script?
- Do you have any observations regarding the characters’ language in general or specifically and Gurira’s use of the English and Shona languages, as well as British dialect and Shona accent?
- Did any character’s voice stand out to you especially? What made it outstanding or of interest to you?
- Can you get a sense of what the play might sound like in performance from reading the play aloud in class? How might the experience of the play in performance be different from your reading experience?
- What challenges do you think an English-speaking American actor faces when taking on a role like The Girl’s/Ester’s or Mai Tamba’s? How do you think an actor might prepare (or be prepared) to play such a role?
- Contextualizing The Convert. To prepare your students for The Convert and to deepen their level of understanding of the play’s distinctive world and its characters, have them research, either in groups or individually, the following topics:
- Playwright Danai Gurira
- Dramatic Works—plays and production history
- In the Continuum
- Acting filmography
- Director Emily Mann
- Director’s resume
- Geography: Map, climate, natural resources and environmental facts
- History and culture
- Pre-colonial overview (c. 1000 - 1887)
- Shona people and culture
- King Mzilikazi Khumalo and the Matebele Kingdom
- British South Africa Company/Cecil John Rhodes
- Christian missionaries in Zimbabwe/Robert Moffat
- Hut tax
- Bernard Mizeki
- George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion
- Malapropisms: Etymology, distinguishing features and examples
Students should share their discoveries on each topic with the class using visual aids, such as PowerPoint presentations, collages, storyboards, etc. Following the presentations ask your students to reflect upon their research process and its joys and challenges.
- Scene Study #2: Two Pygmalions; or, Gurira’s Girl Meets Shaw’s Flower Girl. One of playwright Danai Gurira’s inspirations for The Convert was George Bernard Shaw’s popular 1912 comedy Pygmalion, which tells the story of a British phonetics professor who makes a bet with an associate that he can teach a low-class girl to speak proper English and, in turn, be mistaken for a duchess. Gurira, despite her twenty-first sensibilities and Zimbabwe-American roots, connected to Pygmalion’s themes and Shavian ideology and structure and found it to be the perfect point of departure for her very personal dramatization of the creation of modern Zimbabwean identity :
…Even though Pygmalion is as old as it is… I said this still happens. This is very African. This is what we do. This is the only way we think to get better is. [You] can’t remain only knowing your native tongue and living in that way. You have to become globally viable. So…one day it just clicked and I said, “I’m going to make an African version of Pygmalion, a Zimbabwean version of Pygmalion,” because it is really what I grew up witnessing…it’s definitely what was happening back when they first came, the white settlers. And then…it sort of started to birth itself. So I’m writing it. I’m thinking this is an African version of Pygmalion, and then it sort of grows into this thing that‘s deeply connected to the Church! And deeply connected to all these things I didn’t plan for it to be connected to. And that’s when the play starts to tell you what it is, which is a beautiful and magical moment, because that’s when you know it’s really alive. And your ideas are being outweighed by the reality of a true story coming to birth, and you just being the vessel. So it became a lot more than my initial idea…the genesis, I would say is definitely when I realized how Pygmalion is very current and even historical for Zimbabwe.
Share the above information and quotation with your students. Then, to allow them fully appreciate and engage with Danai Gurira’s artistry and approach to storytelling and that of her influential predecessor George Bernard Shaw, break your students up into scene-study groups of four and assign them one of the following scenes to prepare on-book performances for the edification and enjoyment of their classmates:
- Each group should divvy up parts and elect an “actor-manager” to run the rehearsal(s).
- Following scene presentations, lead students in a discussion of their experience in performing both the Shaw’s Pygmalion and Gurira’s “African version.” Questions to foster discussion might include:
- What were the joys and challenges of staging and rehearsing your particular scene?
- What insights regarding any of Pygmalion’s or The Convert’s characters did you gain from putting or seeing them on their feet?
- What Shavian influences did you detect in Gurira’s script or in the performance of the scene?
- Are there any direct connections you can make between Shaw’s characters, themes, and style Gurira’s?
- How do Shaw’s and Gurira’s style, themes, and characters differ?
- Consider the first seven sentences of Gurira’s quote above in relation to both The Girl/Ester in The Convert and to The Flower Girl/Liza in Shaw’s Pygmalion. What must each do to “get better” or become socially or “globally viable?”