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. This is as good as theatre gets.
Gurira’s play, written in 2012 and previously staged at the Gate last year, is set in 1896 in what today is Zimbabwe. Jekesai (Black Panther’s Letitia Wright) arrives in the house of Chilford (Paapa Essiedu), a devout and neuroses-driven Catholic priest. For the young woman it is a chance to escape an arranged marriage, for Chilford it is an opportunity to bring another soul to Jesus and, over time, create a “protégé”.
Outside the house, uprisings against the colonialist oppressors are gathering momentum. Inside, Jekesai is increasingly forced with having to choose between her newfound religion and the so-called ‘pagan’ practices of her family and community.
All the performances are excellent, all worthy of praise. 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.
Wright, similarly, conveys as much through her body as through her words. Her symbolic silencing, and eventual impassioned actions, suggest a 19th century Antigone.
The other stand out performance comes from Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo as Prudence, a self-proclaimed anomaly in terms of race, class and gender thanks to receiving a better education than anyone else in the room.
Like the play itself, Lewis-Nyawo flips effortlessly between delivering the funniest of quips and sending out shards of heartbreak. In many ways Prudence is the most interesting character and the one consistently able to see clearly, almost to the point of prophesy.
Gurira’s play is an expertly stitched web of overlapping stories, past and present. Language is particularly important, both in the use of names (including the imposition of English names, like Ester on Jekesai) and in the characters’ use of idioms – Chilford, despite his great desire to only use English, scrambles the syntax of clichés, while Prudence ingeniously imbues them with double-meanings, as when she tells Jekesai that speaking her mother tongue has “put some colour back into your cheeks’”.
Through Naomi Dawson’s design, the characters’ stories become enmeshed in elemental energies: rising smoke, ominously penetrating light and, most of all, the ever-present cracked red earth foolishly concreted over in a bid to forget the ancestors buried below. This is theatre you feel in your bones.