Plays by the likes of William Shakespeare are revived ad nauseum. Last month there were no fewer than three productions of Macbeth running at different theatres in London at the same time. But when it comes to plays by black writers, the wait is often far longer. It was a decade before Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size graced the Young Vic main stage after its 2008 UK premiere, and it was more than two before Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking was produced by Bush Theatre after Paulette Randall’s 1995 National Theatre run.
The second play in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first season as artistic director of the Young Vic is a revival of Danai Gurira’s The Convert – first shown in London at Gate Theatre last year. Its programming sends a very clear message: not everyday dead white men, innit.
The Convert is set against a backdrop of the events of late-19th century Zimbabwe. It’s the year 1895 and South Zambesia and North Zambesia have been united and named Rhodesia, after Cecil Rhodes. A rebellion against the invasion of European settlers was in full swing and the menacing rumbles of Max Perryment’s sound design serves as a constant reminder. But The Convert feels less about the specifics of the political conflict du jour and more about navigating the conflict between cultural traditions and colonial influences and how those things collide with the lives and identities of the women of the play.
There is an Ibsenesque quality in the characterisation of these women: Mai Tamba (Pamela Nomvete), Mistress Prudence (Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo) and Jekesai (Letitia Wright). They’re cleverer, stronger, gutsier than the men. Jekesai has no qualms about debating her master when he is wrong, Prudence is well educated and smokes a pipe with enviable elegance, and while Chilford thinks he runs his own house, really Mai Tamba does.
Mai Tamba is the matriarch of the three. In a magisterial depiction from Nomvete, she’s rooted firmly in the rites of her culture, speaking to Jekesai only in her mother tongue and hiding pagan artifacts under the rugs and cushions of her master’s home. But despite her unwavering commitment she understands what’s happening around her and what that means for the young generations; when Jekesai’s father dies unexpectedly, she rescues her from an arranged marriage to a polygamous uncle by convincing her master to take her on as a house girl and protégé.
Their presentation in Gurira’s writing explores the complexity of being a woman who finds liberation from one set of oppressive practices, only to find herself imprisoned by another. We see this mostly in Mistress Prudence, who, in the Queen’s English, boasts of being more educated than both Chilford and her fiance Chancellor but ultimately finds that she is treated with oddity and suspicion because of it. In the end, she resigns herself to a life as the wife of a man well-known for being a philanderer. There is no place for a highly educated African woman in society, she concedes.
If any of the characters manages to navigate and reconcile the contradictory ideals, it’s Wright’s Jekesai. On arrival to Chilford’s house she is seen as a savage who needs to be civilised. Jekesai becomes Ester – a name that better reflects Christian values. Under Chilford’s influence her tribal neckwear disappears and is replaced with button-down shirts, floor length skirts and sturdy leather boots. She reads at mass and declares herself a Roman Catholic.
A year after the death of her father Ester refuses to attend a traditional ceremony to mark the occasion, on account of her new faith. A visit from her cousin Tamba (Rudolphe Mdlongwa) follows this decision. His initial teasings about the way she has rejected her culture crescendo into a spirited speech in which he declares her empty, ready to be filled with anything The Whites want. But in her final monologue, we see the effect of Tamba’s words. She has come full circle, from the zealotry of faith, to the acceptance of unfixable brokenness and ultimately a return to a more enlightened self. She is Jekesai again.
Ola Ince – whose star continues to rise – directs this piece in a way that captures the intensity of the subject matter, but still makes way for mirth. Her command of the script – specifically the way she teases out the humour that was starkly absent from the Gate’s version last year – is impressive. Her production is a compelling argument for getting the right director for new writing, in a climate where this regularly comes across as a secondary consideration.
It seems like no coincidence that at the forefront of this piece is the question of conflicting elements of self and identity. Gurira was born in the US but was raised in Zimbabwe during another period of great change in the country – the years following the their official independence in 1980. It is perhaps this experience that has allowed her to so astutely capture the dynamic of this particular struggle. And perhaps the reason why it works so well for a 21st century multicultural British audience is because of how well those central themes reflect the society we live in today.
The Convert is on at the Young Vic until 26th January 2018. More info and tickets here.