Danai Gurira’s The Convert is a play defined tension. Set in Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) in 1896 it depicts the lives of individuals caught in the conflict between Paganism and Christianity, as we are exposed to the tangible suffering at the hands of colonialism. It follows Chilford, a black Roman Catholic who has been isolated by his beliefs and his relationships to those closest to him. Most particularly, a young Shona girl – Jekesai – who has been brought to his house to escape an unwanted marriage and who he has converted to Catholicism.
Chilford is not at rest for a single moment; he is consistently troubled, seemingly uncomfortable in his European dress and permanently stood almost too upright. Faith and liquor seem to be the only solace for him. Paapa Essiedu plays this role exquisitely, carrying himself excellently in this discomfort and desperation, every action is anxious, his hands and fingers seem to spin awkwardly away from him, at times almost as expressive as his face.
The play itself is staged in the round, the audience circling a concrete square which is surrounded by cracked desert floor: what the white man has touched is manmade and artificial, what he hasn’t is natural. Hanging above this concrete stage are four transparent panels, walls which are unquestionably indicative of a cage or prison.
Within minutes, however, this cage lifts, leaving only a hovering model of the crucifixion. Throughout, this figure of Christ hangs above casting a literal shadow to the proceedings of the play making it unforgettable what the problem really is. A beautiful moment towards the beginning of the play exemplifies this perfectly: Jekesai, who has been given the name Ester to fit to Roman Catholic ideals, looks at this illuminated figure as she is clothed in the garments of a maid. The acceptance of this white religion is also the acceptance of servitude.
Whiteness has permeated and “poisoned” the lives of these characters: they are subjected to the inescapable white systems of power that filters its way down to causing chasms at a familial level too. The Convert plays on the all too familiar colonialist trope of “bringing natives out of the darkness and into the light”, the implications of skin tone here more than just a pun. No one is more aware of this than Prudence, an educated African woman with a Victorian voice. Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo is very much to be commended for playing this part with wit and ferocity. One such instance is her delivery of Gurira’s fantastic line directed at Jekesai that “some colour is returning to your cheeks” the irony of which renders the audience to burst into laughter.
Similarly, Letitia Wright is a force to be reckoned with, her depicted of Jekesai is faultless and subtle. Her body becomes a very physical representation of the infringement on her liberty; once all limbs and freely moving she becomes stiff as we witness what can only be called her indoctrination. Wright is deliberate in her portrayal of Jekesai’s transformation into Ester showing us the silencing of this voice and sense of self with a distinct attentiveness.
Ola Ince has directed a nuanced and arresting production that completely does justice to Gurira’s three act play. This is spirited playwriting translated into equally spirited staging which keeps you confused and unsure how to feel as it oscillates between humour and horror. The simultaneous existence of these opposing entities in tension with one another is no coincidence.
One moment tense, the next funny The Convert is about what it means to have faith, it is play of complexity and duality. Touching on the hierarchies of race and gender, power and violence, it provokes the continuously pertinent questions about the narratives and effects of colonialism. Young Vic have a beautiful production here that is full to brim with excellent acting, thoughtful direction and deliberate staging.
Young Vic’s The Convert runs until the 26th January next year.