Gate Theatre, London – until 11 February 2017
“There’s no place for a highly educated African woman here.”
Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed was the best thing I saw in 2015 so the prospect of seeing her 2012 play The Convert, also at the Gate Theatre, was a joyous one indeed. And once again, Gurira turns her focus to the African continent, exploring the kind of history that I’m pretty sure is rarely featured in the majority of Western schoolrooms. The year is 1896 and the place is Rhodesia, the country now known as Zimbabwe, and The Convert takes a look at colonialism there from the inside out.
Chilford may be a native of this territory but taken from his family as a young boy, he has been moulded into an approximation of ‘an English gentleman’, the only black Roman Catholic priest in the area and tasked with the job of converting the population to the ways of their colonial masters. On the run from an attempt at forced marriage, Jekesai finds sanctuary under Chilford’s tutelage, renamed as Ester and quickly becoming his star pupil but as she comes to understand just how much she’s expected to give up, she’s left to question if there’s any safe haven at all.
Set exclusively in the drawing room of Chilford’s home, whose soft furnishings and flooring set it far apart from the norm and draw the ire of angry villagers, Gurira opts not to directly feature any white colonialists but to adroitly show the smothering blanket of their influence. So we see Stefan Adegbola’s Chilford done up in Victorian tailoring and speaking the Queen’s English, badly as it turns out, and his Doolittle-ish approach to Mimi Ndiweni’s Jekesai covers up more than her bare-breastedness, as his insistence of her adherence to her new faith includes denying all reference to her old, including her extended family.
As a portrait of cultural warfare, The Convert is devastatingly good. Christopher Haydon’s production smartly shows us the different ways resistance can take form – Clare Perkin’s Mai Tamba, Chilford’s housekeeper and Jekesai’s aunt, flirts dangerously with both worlds, doing the bare minimum to convince of her conversion to keep her job but practising ancient rituals as soon as he turns his back. And in the performance of the night, Joan Iyiola’s fiercely intelligent Prudence aims for a more balanced position between the two, even as she recognises how increasingly impossible co-existence is.
Strikingly designed by Rosie Elnile, the drama weaves a powerful spell as it builds to an incendiary climax, which is no less powerful for its melodramatic flourish. How else could such a heady combination of religion and politics end? A ferocious and fitting end to Haydon’s reign as Artistic Director here, let’s hope he continues to bring such vital and interesting stories to light wherever he goes next.