Danai Gurira isn’t a particularly well-known name in British theatre, but it soon will be. The Zimbabwean-American writer and actor rose to fame on the small and silver screens with roles in The Walking Dead and Black Panther, and her plays have made waves and garnered critical acclaim across the Atlantic.
Her award-winning 2012 work The Convert first appeared on these shores last year at The Gate, and it’s given a major revival here as part of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s debut season at the Young Vic. Ola Ince directs a production that runs until late January.
Her staging stars Paapa Essiedu as Chilton, an African Catholic missionary in what is now Zimbabwe in 1896, and Letitia Wright, who also appeared in Marvel’s Black Panther, as Jekesai, his young protégée forced to abandon her traditions as anti-colonial sentiment festers in the native population.
But does Gurira’s play impress as much as it did at The Gate in 2017? Does Ince eke excellent performances from Essiedu and Wright? Is this the first real hit of Kwei-Armah’s debut season in charge?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Gurira’s play, which is loosely inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, impressed the critics when it debuted in the UK last year. Is it similarly lauded on its second outing here?
It certainly is. Gurira’s play “is an expertly stitched web of overlapping stories” according to Rosemary Waugh (The Stage, ★★★★★), a “mesmerising investigation of colonialism, faith and identity” according to Dominic Maxwell (The Times, ★★★★), and “has the feeling of a modern classic” according to Holly Williams (Independent, ★★★★).
“What’s wonderful about Gurira’s writing is its willingness to richly inhabit all positions,” continues Williams, while Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★★★) writes of the work’s “satisfying complexity” and its “sharply focused account not only of individual identity, but also of cultural hybridity”.
“The Convert is shown, thanks to the greater space and budget of the Young Vic, to be a work considering questions of racial, political and religious identity and assimilation with a provocative intelligence that is – appropriately given the text with which it plays – Shavian,” adds Mark Lawson (Guardian, ★★★★).
For Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★★), meanwhile, it’s “a meticulous, gripping and emotionally devastating drama about the colonisation of the mind”, that is “fascinating in its articulation of how religion was a tool of empire”.
“A really great thing about Gurira’s writing,” Lukowski continues, is the way “she combines a sturdy and gripping three-act plot that could come from a Hollywood movie, with a level of detail and characterisation that takes things way beyond that”.
“The play is at once old-fashioned – a traditional three-act structure – and utterly radical,” chimes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “It forces you to look at history through the other end of the traditionally shaped telescope.”
“It is revelatory and energising, utterly absorbing through each second of its long (almost three-hour) playing time,” she concludes, while Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★) simply remarks: “It’s a terrific play – a rich, thoughtful, carefully crafted piece.”
In recent months, Ola Ince has helmed Poet in da Corner at the Royal Court and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 at The Gate, but this might be the biggest production of her career to date. How well does she handle Gurira’s powerful play?
Really well, most critics agree. Her show is a “fiercely realised staging” of Gurira’s play according to Williams and is a “fabulous production” according to Sierz.
“Ola Ince’s staging of Danai Gurira’s The Convert is one of those rare productions in which every element – performances, direction, design, everything – is superb,” says Waugh. “This is as good as theatre gets.”
“Ince’s production boldly suffuses a traditional three-act format with the sounds and textures of Shona culture, while Gurira gives a rare and eloquent expression to the personal negotiations endured by those at the brute end of colonial rule,” adds Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★★).
There is one small niggle for Crompton. “Naomi Dawson’s rising and falling gauze box of a set bothered me,” she writes. “It works beautifully symbolically, suggesting the restriction and liberation of Jekesai’s world view, but it does obscure the action and makes blocking difficult.”
“But I have absolutely no doubts about the fineness of all other aspects of Ola Ince’s magnificently acted production,” Crompton adds. “It held me in its grip from its opening moment.”
And how does it compare to Christopher Haydon’s swansong staging at The Gate in 2017? “This version is an upgrade,” answers Maxwell. “The three hours grip throughout and find the humour as well as the sadness and tension as local rebels start to make life dangerous for our Christian heroes.”
This is, concludes Hemming, “an electrifying staging of a moving play about faith, identity, colonialism, the interplay between all three and the trauma of those trapped in the middle”.
There’s considerable star power here. Paapa Essiedu was the RSC’s first black Hamlet in 2016, and just finished a stint in Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season. Letitia Wright found success in several TV roles, before reaching global fame thanks to her parts in Marvel’s cinematic universe.
Both impress the critics. Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★) writes of two “detailed, expressive central performances”, while Maxwell praises the cast for being “compulsively watchable”.
Essiedu is “exquisitely nuanced” according to Clare Allfree, and “toweringly powerful” according to Lawson.
“Paapa Essiedu, one of those performers that transforms themselves for every part, is remarkable as the bowler-hatted Chilford,” writes Williams. “Here his prissy, priggish mannerisms – bouncing on the balls of his feet, primly clasping his hands or making little fluttering motions with his fingertips – speak volumes about his desperate desire to be ‘civilised’. He’s very funny, too, staying on just the right side of caricature.”
“All the performances are excellent, all worthy of praise,” writes Waugh. “Essiedu, however, is especially fascinating as the repressed Christian Father, fingers always twitching as his upright veneer fractures to show the small, parentless child hidden inside. He inhabits the role completely, almost unrecognisable as the man who played a bravado-driven Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company.”
His co-star is equally lauded. “Wright is just a marvel, watchful and wonderful, quite often standing absolutely still but conveying worlds with her eyes, her expression or a flex of the hand,” assesses Crompton.
“Wright charts the changes in Jekesai brilliantly, moving from the loose-limbed village girl, all emphatic expressive gestures and outbursts, to being upright and righteous, as if her religious zeal were an iron rod down her back,” adds Williams, while Hitchings praises her for capturing “with satisfying complexity” he character’s “mix of naivety, excitement and confusion as she’s obliged to choose between two identities”.
There’s no doubt about it. Kwame Kwei-Armah has got a hit on his hands, the first unqualified success of his tenure at the Young Vic. The critics knew Danai Gurira’s play was good, but Ola Ince’s superb production, featuring two fine performances from Paapa Essiedu and Letitia Wright, reveals just how good.
Four-star ratings across the board, plus a five from Rosemary Waugh for The Stage, point to a late entrant for 2018’s show of the year.