Play: The Convert
Playwright: Danai Gurira
Theatre: The Young Vic
Director: Ola Ince
Review by Irenosen Okojie
Award-winning playwright and actress Danai Gurira has achieved phenomenal success as Wakandan force of nature Okoye in Marvel’s Black Panther and Infinity War, a role depicting a fearless, acerbic, sexy warrior which redefines ideas around power and femininity on the screen.
But it is her talent as a writer that has steadily been making waves in the world of theatre for some time with both her plays Eclipsed and The Convert receiving huge critical acclaim. The Convert originally premiered at the Gate Theatre and now gets a larger revival as one of the stand out productions in artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s debut season at the Young Vic.
Set in a colonised Zimbabwe (Salisbury now known as Harare), featuring an all black cast, The Convert is a forensic, mesmerising and devastating dissection of religion and colonisation, where the colonisation is just as much mental as it is an unseen, potent yet palpable, physical force.
The story unfolds in the household of Paapa Essiedu’s superbly assiduous, rigid Chilford. Dressed in an immaculate suit and speaking only English, he is the epitome of a perfect English gentleman, having lived amongst the British as a young child. He dispenses their cultural logic and dangerous, ill-informed ideas of remoulding Africans with amusing accuracy. But beneath the surface lurks something broken about Chilford.
At the beginning of the play, he takes on a young ingénue, Jekesai, swiftly renamed Ester (played by Black Panther star Letitia Wright). Initially, she cannot speak English nor knows anything about English culture, but soon she becomes a prodigy, rapidly repressing her native tongue and imbibing the entire bible in only a few weeks. Her clothing transforms to that of an English school mistress, her original buoyancy, curiosity and critical ways of thinking quashed, her physicality and mannerisms made refined and subdued.
It is Pygmalion in Zimbabwe with Chilford certain he is helping this young woman become a better person. But is this really an intervention? It feels more like the erasure of Ester’s very being, her mother tongue, her tribal practices, her familial connections and the gutting of her African, cultural identity. By the second part, the structures of Chilford’s world become shaky after his best friend Chancellor (an entertaining Ivanno Jeremiah) is killed due to the rising tensions of locals furious at the increasingly disruptive British influence.
In the third act, Chilford’s foundations fall apart. Direction from Ola Ince creates a moody, atmospheric aesthetic and an in the round set design from Naomi Dawson with light opaque walls feels like a physical representation of Chilford’s mental state; sturdy and assured at first, then shadowy and flimsy as things unravel. There are comic touches and humorous exchanges to keep this highly intense play balanced and tonally varied.
The Convert features a strong supporting cast; one of the most intriguing being Chancellor’s fiancée, Prudence (played by Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo). She is whip smart, sharper than all the men in the room, ridiculously posh, almost like an absurdist caricature, yet her moments alone with Ester reveal a highly discerning, anarchic ally.
It is such a robust, delightfully surprising character played with real verve by Lewis Nyawo.
However, it is the marvellous performances from leads Letitia Wright and Paapa Essiedu that stand out. Essiediu’s tremendous, titular performance as Chilford marks him as a charismatic leading man whose potential is incredibly exciting. Wright is already rightly a star and she shows why with this pitch perfect turn, moving from comic haplessness to a slow reclaiming of her true self with clear eyed ferocity. Essiedu’s Chilford is given both internal and external dimension; witty, complex, raging and vulnerable.
Who the actual convert is in the production remains illusive which is such a clever element from Gurira, whose attention to detail and characterisation within a taut, three act structure results in a fully immersive, authentic world.
The Convert is a great play which has much to say about the role of religion in colonisation, the infiltration of the white mind set in black bodies and the desire to rise above one’s circumstances through cultural currencies.
Do not miss it. It is a compelling, thought-provoking addition to the theatre scene. It will be fascinating to see what Gurira and her mighty pen do next.
The Convert is at the Young Vic until 26 January 2019.
Photo credit: Letitia Wright by Marc Brenner