Next week, The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will premiere The Convert, a play by Off-Broadway Theater Awards-winning playwright Danai Gurira.
The Convert is set in late 19th Century Southern Africa (modern-day Zimbabwe). The play follows Jekesai, “a young girl who escapes village life and a forced marriage arrangement, ultimately discovering Christianity under the guidance of an African teacher. However, as anti-colonial sentiments rise to a boiling point, Jekesai must choose between her new European God and the spirits of her ancestors. … The Convert examines complex cultural and religious collisions that shaped the post-colonial world, the reverberations of which are still felt in Zimbabwe today.”
I had the opportunity to talk to actress Dawn Ursula, who plays Prudence in The Convert. She was alsonamed one of DC’s top 12 actors / actresses by the Washington Post.
First off, congrats on making the Washington Post’s list of “12 Actors We Love to Watch” this past fall! How did you get started acting? Where does this role seem to fit in the trajectory of your career?
Thank you. That was quite an honor.
I started acting in high school. I did forensics, which makes most people think of CSI. It's also the study of formal debate, and my high school had a Forensics club. After a recitation assignment in my history class of the Brutus speech from “Julius Caesar,” my teacher suggested I try out, so I did. We would compete locally and nationally. I didn't debate, but I was in the dramatic interpretation division — doing monologues, basically. Wish I could still get that excited about a monologue now (wink).
Oh, talking about the trajectory of my career is kind of tricky. I hope this trajectory is a very long one. I'm looking for longevity, here. In which case, I hope this role sits at the beginning of the incline. But, to answer your question another way, this role is one of the most exciting and challenging I've ever been offered. I'm quickened by and scared of it, which is exactly the kind of role I want.
How has the spiritual journey of your character, Prudence, influenced your own spiritual journey, if at all?
That's coming. I can feel it coming. I've been really, really, lucky to play some wonderful characters, like Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun and Berniece in The Piano Lesson. I've never finished a production without having to face something in my personal life, spiritual or otherwise, that these women have also been wrestling with. It's not always pleasant, but I'm always appreciative. Prudence, no doubt, has something in store for me.
What does the audience need to know about the history of Zimbabwe to more fully appreciate the context of the play? And what about the role of Christianity in the colonization of Sub-Saharan Africa?
I'm so glad that you asked that question and that I can answer it with … well, nothing. Not a damn thing. People can come to the theatre as "historically ignorant" as they want to and they won't miss a thing.
However, I wouldn't be surprised if they wanted to learn more afterwards. That's the elegance and power of Danai's writing. This play is drama of the highest stakes. You meet these people and recognize them and like them and root for them. You laugh with them and sometimes at them. Then, all those things in your question above become real, brutal obstacles that manifest in a threat to their happiness, their relationships, and their very lives. You wonder how in the world they are going to overcome and then youhave to deal.
Well, I could say more, but that would spoil it. So, I'll just remind you that this play is being produced by Woolly Mammoth, so expect anything.
You’ve also worked with Danai Gurira on her play, Eclipsed. What have you enjoyed or appreciated while interacting with Danai Gurira this time around?
As before with Eclipsed, Danai is incredibly knowledgeable and so very accessible. She's an actor as well, so there are questions you can ask and she hears you because she also wears that hat.
For whatever reason (and perhaps because I had a 6 month old with me at the time I was doingEclipsed), I've actually had a few opportunities this time around to just chat with Danai. Her sincerity and generosity, as corny as it may sound, is really inspiring. If you ever have the fortunate opportunity to interact with her, you'll agree.
What do you like most about acting and working with the Woolly Theatre?
Woolly gives a voice to theatre that few others do. There's an adage about there being no new stories, but you come see a play at Woolly and you feel like you've actually seen one. The playwrights they find have a story to tell in ways that have not been done before. And these playwrights have voices that Woolly recognizes need to be heard.
Selfishly, it's one of the most exciting places for me to work because of this. It's also an honor to be part of a company of such distinguished artists, as well as work with some incredible guests who join us.
Also, the Connectivity element that Woolly has is amazing. You can come see a show and then perhaps, if you're as lucky as I was, see Eleanor Holmes Norton on the stage during a talkback, serving up enlightenment! Sometimes you can come to a talkback and not even see the show (I think they still allow that). But Connectivity is so much more than talkbacks. Woolly had a freakin' wrestling video game you could play during The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity! Ridiculous. Wonderfully, Woolly ridiculous. I encourage folks to check out www.woollymammoth.net, the blog, and come see Woolly in action for themselves.
Finally, why should people see The Convert?
Yesterday, I was watching my fellow actors rehearse the first act without stopping. I laughed out of my gut — that kind of laugh where you almost don't recognize your voice because it took you by surprise. Then, my nose started tingling when I got all emotional. I felt myself going to some wonderfully, deep places of thought because of something someone said or the circumstances I was witnessing. And I know what's going to happen!!
I miss a lot of theatre, unfortunately, and there are times when a show goes by and I hate myself for missing it. This is that show. You don't want that to be you.
James Colten is Special Assistant to the CEO at Sojourners.