The Convert had previously played at The Gate in 2012, press night at the Young Vic in Waterloo was a glitzy affair now with both Wright and Gurira having a “considerably higher profile” this was almost a West End premiere- it could not have been anything less.
Director Ola Ince’s delivery of this production is well tinned from the cast to the three-act structure, to Naomi Dawson’s set all expectations are meet. There is no compromise on intention as the play starts and closes with untranslated conversations in the Shona dialect, a brave and powerful move.
Gurira’s The convert explores British colonialism, class and religion in southern Africa, act 1 begins in 1895 in Mashonaland, renamed Southern Rhodesia, then what we know as Zimbabwe. As colonialism spread across Africa during the nineteenth century Christian missionary work across the continent was expanded and used as a means of divide and rule. Gurira uses religion as a driver for disruption among the local Shona tribespeople causing cultural and social unbalance. Survival of Christianity in post-colonial countries signified, to many, a loss of tradition and culture and a recognition and acceptance by native people of the superiority of Western faith.
Chilford (Paapa Essiedu) and Jekesai (Wright) lead a superb cast, Chilford a catholic teacher takes in Jekesai a young girl fleeing her uncle to escape a forced marriage. Chilford, the wannabe priest sees this as an opportunity to further his quest of converting the local Shona tribespeople or the “savages” as he calls them. Chilford with his assumed “Englisher” grandeur is somewhat crippled by his own scrambled use of the English language like when he describes his day as a “bag of mixtures”.
Jekesai’s uncle (Jude Akuwudike) merely sees Jekesai’s marriage as a transactional process her father has died and Jekesai belongs to him. Jekesai is renamed Ester by Chilford and by the end of act two we see her forsaking the traditions of the Shona. Her aunt, Mai Tamba (Pamela Nomvete) works for Chilford, the cunning maid who feigns loyalty to her master but brings witchcraft into the house and performs Shona rituals in his absence, making a mockery of Bafu, the name given by the Shona people to the Zimbabwean middle classes like Chilford who betray their people.
Gurira’s The Convert reminds us of the place women had in that society, it speaks a female voice. When Chilford wants to send Ester to school he is questioned by the Chancellor (Ivannoh Jeremiah) as to why he is sending “a girl to school”, to him women are best placed in the domestic sphere doing household chores, cooking, washing, and child bearing. The arrogant Chancellor threatens to exercise his right to take Ester by force even though he is about to be married to Prudence, (Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo) a middle-class woman who believes she is more English than the English. Prudence represents the strong woman, well ahead of her time who proudly announces and takes glee in being more educated than the men, more so than both Chilford and the Chancellor. Surprisingly despite her status and her love for tea she holds dear her Shona believes and wants Ester to become her real self and not forsake their traditions. The “Whites” are invisible as all the cast are black, but we are constantly reminded of their power with references like “the courts follow in the ways of the Lord”.
Playing Ester’s young cousin Tamba is Rudolph Mdlongwa who takes pride in his tradition and his anger towards white rule eventually leads to death. Dawson’s set is a square box that creates the “house” that Chilford lives in and is used as a means to create dramatic effect when the large box encases the cast and you watch their form in what appears to be a frosted plastic. There is not much in the study that Chilford conducts his teachings but a wooden table, chair and chaise longue all very much fitting of the Victorian era. A large cross hangs above. Ince manages to get just the right measure of comedy, pathos and intensity from the cast of 7, all punching in the heavyweight league. Cast: Letitia Wright, Jude Akuwudike, Paapa Essiedu, Ivanno Jeremiah, Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo, Rudolph Mdlongwa, Pamela Nomvete (Voice and dialect coach Hazel Holder). All photos credit Marc Brenner
Where: Young Vic, London runs until 26th January 2018
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