For better or worse, it seems most of the attention “The Convert” is getting is for its ties to “Black Panther”. Writer Danai Gurira and actress Letitia Wright starred in the phenomenally successful superhero movie, and with the latter now nominated for a Bafta, I was eager to see how their talents would be put to theatre. The story sees Wright’s character Jekesai convert to Christianity (changing her name to Ester in the process) under the guidance of Paapa Essiedu’s Catholic priest Chilford in the turbulent setting of 1896 modern-day Zimbabwe. Directed by Ola Ince, it tackles the difficult issues of colonialism, religion, and culture.
Heavy themes, for sure, and yet the comedy in it is surprising, especially in the quirks in the language. Chilford, who is apparently French, teaches Jekesai to speak English, but every now and then a saying will come up that isn’t quite right (“you are not in seriousness?”), made all the funnier by there being no-one to correct him. The narrative, certainly in the first and second act anyway, is reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde for its witticisms and in how it considers class. It’s refreshing to see a new play written in such a comfortably familiar and quite British way, however ironic that is. It makes the final act, in which external forces of rebellion against colonialism and everyone associated with it, all the more striking and difficult to watch.
It’s not wholly forgiving, nor is it wholly damning. Jekesai first converts to Catholicism when she believes that Jesus saved her from a forced marriage. The clash between her new beliefs, that allow her more freedom and acceptance, and her roots and sense of identity, drive a play that is not scared to discuss the darker side of tradition. The conflict brewing inside of her is excellently performed by Wright, as are the Zimbabwean mannerisms and accent (especially her joy-inducing dancing). The intersectionality that is often ignored when discussing colonialism is explored more in Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo’s performance as Prudence, the fiancé of Chilford’s friend Chancellor. Black, female, and educated, she is disinherited and treated like a novelty, yet she is dignified and candid in equal measure, and still has emotionality that she tries to repress in order to be taken seriously. Also, she has some of the best lines; “I like rebels. I’m not one; if I was I would never marry.”
Essiedu’s performance endears the audience to a character who could be seen as the enemy. He’s well-meaning, devoted to his cause, and cannot understand the importance of what he refers to as “pagan” traditions through no fault of his own, but because of the objectivity of right and wrong that he is trying to teach. Even when he shows off his “prodigy”, as she comes to be known, with pride as she recites scripture, he makes what could be seen as harmful practically sweet.
The whole cast deliver outstanding performances, and Ince’s direction makes the most of the cast and transitions between the comedy and the drama seamlessly. The set, too, is something to marvel at. I’ve said before that I am easily won over by a moving set, but the imprisonment represented by the rising and descending translucent box surrounding the (in-the-round) stage can’t be overlooked.
Ultimately “The Convert” is a play about a nation and a people wresting not only with the white invaders but with themselves, trying to fight colonial change as well as individual battles. Jekesai is, incidentally, Gurira’s middle name. Her writing is what stands out the most in a show I found moving, empowering, and truly exceptional. Five stars.
Whispers from the Crowd:
“Best piece of theatre I’ve seen all year, and I’ve seen a lot of theatre this year”