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Review: The Convert by Danai Gurira

POWERFUL PERFORMANCE: Letitia Wright on stage as Jekesai/Ester in The Convert (Image: Marc Brenner)

SET IN Zimbabwe in 1896, The Convert follows the journey of Jekesai (Letitia Wright), a young woman rescued from a forced marriage by her aunt (Mai Tamba, played by Pam Nomvete) and a Catholic missionary and teacher, Chilford (Paapa Essiedu).

Jekesai is employed to work alongside her aunt at Chilford’s home under the pretence that she is interested in converting to Catholicism. But unlike Mai Tamba, who does the bare minimum to convince Chilford that she has been saved, seemingly intentionally fails to recite the Hail Mary prayer correctly and continues to engage in practices of her original faith, Jekesai actually undergoes a genuine conversion. In doing so, she leaves her ancestral religion, traditional rituals and, from her relatives’ point of view, her family behind.

This isn’t an easy choice for Jekesai, who Chilford renames Ester after the biblical figure, it’s one she wrestles with – as she does with complying to the customs of the time. Some require her to hold her tongue to appease white people, even when they misquote scripture, something Chilford has instilled in her that she must not allow, at least under any other circumstances.

Written by Danai Gurira and directed by Ola Ince, The Convert explores the complexities of conversion, what one gains and latches on to by obtaining a faith and what they have to let go of, colonialism and the brutal histories of the introduction of Christianity to African countries, in this case Zimbabwe.

Gurira unapologetically confronts the evils of colonialism, the significance of ancestral traditions and religions and the sometimes conflicting relationship between faith and family ties.

While anyone can enjoy this piece of work, it’s impossible to escape the strong sense that Gurira made it for a black audience. It’s apparent that she wants black theatregoers to feel seen, understood and valued. The frequent use of the Shona language without translation or explanation further reinforces this and brings to mind Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments about writers not explaining too much, that they should incorporate phrases or expressions in their mother tongue and not concern themselves with whether their readers got it or not.


BRILLIANT: Paapa Essiedu and Wright perform at The Young Vic

Zimbabwean-American Gurira certainly does that here but many of the messages she seeks to communicate with her audience cannot be contained by language barriers or that of any other kind.

While The Convert is laced with laughs, many which take aim at the hypocrisy of white people responsible for colonialism, it’s also packed with plenty sober truths and poses important questions that are strikingly relevant today despite the historical setting.

Wright’s performance once again proves her mastering of comedic timing and delivery. Black Panther fans will pleased to see her show her funny side in another role but as Jekesai/Esther, she also displays her power to bring audiences to tears. She is a wonderfully talented actress, expertly portraying Jekesai’s initial childlike innocence, through to her grasp of Christianity and the English language, her personal struggle choosing faith over family and finally her maturity in discovering herself, embracing who she is and fighting for what she believes in.

At one point Jekesai reclaims her birth name, proclaims it loudly and boldly – it’s a moment which speaks to the power in being your true self and demonstrates her realisation that her heritage is not to be ashamed of or denied and that being a true believer does not require her to erase her individuality. It’s a rallying call and one inspired by Gurira’s own experience. She’s spoken out about going by the name Dede when she was younger, how her missionaries informed her grandparents their children could not be christened without a Christian name – and her middle name is Jekesai.

The performances by the play’s three female actors are captivating. As well as Wright, Nomvete and Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo, who plays Prudence, the fiance of Childford’s childhood friend Chancy (Ivanno Jeremiah), perform the roles of strong women who have plenty presence and purpose incredibly. There’s more to them than first meets the eye.

Essiedu is brilliant, too. He convincingly encapsulates Childford’s by the book nature and his intense adoration of Jekesai, who he makes his protégé.

If you know nothing of the play, which was previously staged in London at the Gate theatre in 2017, don’t be put off by it’s solemn looking poster, The Convert is well worth seeing. And the word is clearly getting out as performances are selling out.

The Convert is on until January 26 2019 at The Young Vic. Visit www.youngvic.org or call 020 7922 2922 for performance dates and to book. Tickets are available from £10.

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