Set in what is now Zimbabwe in 1896, The Convert tells the story of Jekesai (Leticia Wright), a girl who escapes an arranged marriage, leaving her people to join the household of Childford (Paapa Essiedu). Under his roof, Jekesai becomes the devoutly Catholic Childford’s project. Soon she is renamed Esther; she swaps her traditional tribal dress for conventional and conservative Western attire; she no longer eats mango flesh off the stone, but pours tea; she rejects her mother tongue to learn the Queen’s English.
The use of language throughout Danai Gurira’s courageous script is beautiful; we hear a cacophony of cultures as the singsong native language blends with the rhetoric of Christianity, and nuanced occasions where the lines between cultures are blended. English idioms are solemnly spoken with charming mistakes: Childford earnestly describes his day as ‘a bag of mixtures’, rather than ‘a mixed bag.’ Likewise, the performances are utterly outstanding with clear and precise direction from Ola Ince. Moments of tension are accompanied by quick wit; audience engagement never ceases once in an electrifying three-hour piece.
Gurira’s writing culminates in perhaps one of the most remarkable final scenes I have ever had the privilege to watch. Wright delivers a confessional monologue with blazing power and throbbing vulnerability; the audience are transfixed in wonder at her performance and horror at her words.
The Convert perfectly portrays both the hypocrisy and futility of Roman Catholicism. As Jekesai becomes more devout, the in the round staging becomes encased in a white gauze, the silhouette of a crucifix penetrating through. We also see the deep roots that our heritage holds: despite denouncing his tribe’s spiritual customs as bogus, the pious Childford instantly physically responds to an ancient curse. Customs and cultures seem ultimately irrefutably entrenched. We are also shown how although religion has the power and authority to eradicate an entire culture, nothing can undermine the entrenched social hierarchy placing man above woman and black above white.
Although this is a play set over one hundred and twenty years ago and thousands of miles away, it is starkly candid in its warning. As present day Britain strives to ‘take back control’, it is more important than ever to acknowledge the impact of this control in the past and remember the human cost of the often glorified colonisation of the British Empire. In her blistering final speech, Jekesai highlights the futility of human division with devastating simplicity: ‘they bled the same blood.’ This is raw and bold writing, powerfully executed with faultless direction and performance.
The Convert runs at The Young Vic Theatre until 26 January.
Image © Marc Brenner