It didn’t require a Marvel blockbuster to bring Danai Gurira’s work as a playwright to the London stage, for both Eclipsed and The Convert have previously played at The Gate. But there’s undoubtedly a Black Panther-related boost to this new production at The Young Vic, the profile of both playwright and lead actress Letitia Wright having been raised significantly by their performances in that boundary-pushing film.
As a result, the opening night of The Convert in South-East London featured as much excitement as a major West End premier – but with a noticeably more diverse audience. And Ola Ince’s vibrant, enormously powerful production certainly delivers on expectations.
Gurira’s 2012 drama charts the perverse nuances of British colonialism in southern Africa, notably the use of Christianity as an insidious tool of religious, cultural and social disruption. Given its potent female characters and the chaos of the current political landscape – not least the former coloniser in danger of casting itself into the international wilderness – it now feels especially relevant. Ince and her uniformly excellent cast bring the piece to life with a combination of verve, poignancy, nerve-shredding tension and a great deal of unexpected humour.
It’s set in 1896 in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Chilford (Paapa Essiedu, below with Wright) is a black Catholic teacher and wannabe priest, piously seeking converts from the local Shona tribespeople. Jekesai (Wright) is a young Shona fleeing from her uncle (Jude Akuwudike), who intends to marry her off for purely transactional purposes. Her aunt, Mai Tamba (Pamela Nomvete), works for Chilford and persuades her master to take the girl on, as both additional servant and potential new convert. He quickly comes to regard the newly renamed Ester as the ‘protégé’ he’s been longing for.
Despite the serious underpinnings – from the polygamous fate that Jekesai escapes to the speed with which she starts to abandon her family and traditions – the early stages of the play are nimble and witty. Essiedu has fun with a man whose avid desire to become English has its linguistic shortcomings, as when he condemns behaviour taking place “under my very nostrils” or asserts his day as “a bag of mixtures”. And Wright displays the comic chops that stole so many scenes in Panther, sometimes simply using facial responses to garner laughs as the eager, guileless Ester acclimatises to her new environment, or with her own character’s loopy adventures in the English language, which include an hilariously awful (but, for the actress, technically accomplished) rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’.
However, Gurira’s themes do slowly simmer towards boiling point. This play’s Pygmalion is an unwitting tool of colonial cunning, which uses language and religion to divide families and pit countrymen and women against each other. The proud, but naïve Chilford and the quickly devout Ester are oblivious to the rebellion against the whites, which is becoming increasingly violent. It’s up to Chilford’s best friend and fellow convert, the cynically self-serving Chancellor (Ivanno Jeremiah), to observe that westernised blacks are now “Bafu”, traitors, and just as likely to be targeted for retribution as the whites; he urges the fervent Chilford to stop stoking the animosity.
While there are no white characters on show, their control over the local population is often referenced, whether slave labour in the mines or brutal payback for the rebellion. But it’s the Africans alone who carry this drama of oppression. And as Gurira’s three-act structure steadily builds intensity, particularly through the nuance of her characterisations.
Nomvete’s Mai Tamba is a quicksilver blend of fawning servitude and sly adherence to her truth faith and rituals; as Prudence, the philandering Chancellor’s long-suffering wife, Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo (above, with Wright) offers a woman who prides herself on being more English than the English, while lamenting the limitations still placed on her as a woman; Rudolph Mdlongwa plays Jekesai’s cousin Tamba as a likeable, loyal young man, with a simple pride in his heritage, but whose growing anger at the whites will lead to tragedy.
Essiedu is particularly impressive as Chilford, a tragic enigma whose childhood and family history is never detailed, but who wears a painful personal history in the stiff-limbed, over-fastidious efforts to raise above his own people. While the machinations of the play’s final act may appear too engineered, the performances really do see it home, with both Essiedu and Wright (who has also appeared in Eclipsed) incredibly moving as their characters are forced to re-evaluate their cultural identities.
Designer Naomi Dawson contains the Young Vic’s round within a transparent box, in which a large crucifix floats above Chilford’s tatty version of a Victorian study, where all the action takes place. Around it is the semblance of arid earth, crickets chirping in the background.
Ince’s direction is most striking for its control of tone, between comedy and threat, pathos and violence. With the actors perfectly embodying their Southern African characters, including a considerable amount of Shona dialogue, a special mention should go to voice and dialect coach Hazel Holder.
Photos: Marc Brenner
This review first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter