The Convert by Danai Gurira
Young Vic / directed by Ola Ince
Seen on December 28, 2018
Score: 3.5 / 5
The Convert takes us to colonial Zimbabwe in 1896, where Jekesai-turned-Esther, a young and impressionable woman, gradually embraces Christianity at the behest of a devout Catholic priest, but only to discover tragically that the colour of her skin and her allegiance to her community will have to drive a wedge between her newfound faith and the religion imposed upon her. While the play touches on a wide range of problems inherent in Africa’s colonial history, including those about language, culture, religion, and race, the way it does so is not particularly well-organised. It is not until the final moments of Act Two that the play’s real tension, along with its central thematic interest, rears its head in earnest, and the exquisitely powerful Act Three far surpasses the preceding acts in allowing the real torments of the story to take centre stage.
Much of what makes this final act so shattering is its elegantly developing discourse on race, especially in relation to the questions it asks of institutionalised religion and personal faith. I could make the bold claim that this act, by itself, could have been the core pillar of a much tidier play. Of course, the first two acts do have several scenes that are both dramaturgically necessary and situationally engaging, but their contributions to the thematic arc of the play are not consistent. As such, the three-hour runtime of the play is not justified: with some necessary pruning, this could have been a more formidable, two-act piece.
Letitia Wright’s and Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo’s performances are the throbbing heart of this production. It is almost impossible to imagine someone else in the role of Jekesai; Wright has more than the requisite emotional and physical range to do justice to the many nuances of her character. As for Lewis-Nyawo, not only is her character, Prudence, one of the most fascinating and provocative aspects of the entire work, but she embodies Prudence’s fierce “wokeness” with admirable force and refinement. The rest of the cast are satisfying in their performances, but it is worth noting that Paapa Essiedu could have been considerably more interrogative and multifaceted with a character like Chilford.
Ola Ince’s direction boasts handsome achievements in pacing and transitions, but her blocking is not always suitable for an in-the-round staging, and her dynamic use of the semi-transparent walls lacks an underlying logic. I loved the way the centre stage was used in conjunction with the four diagonal entrances, and how our attention was regularly directed to the spatial (as well as cultural and psychological) peripheries of the story, but the space within the central square could have been utilised more dynamically.
Nonetheless, Naomi Dawnson’s semi-realist set deserves acclaim for providing the production with such a versatile and neat playing field. Bruno Poet’s thoughtfully emphatic lighting and Max Perryment’s brilliant sound design are part and parcel of what carries this production forward, downplaying, or perhaps even forestalling, our sensitiveness to the play’s blemishes. The Convert might be an imperfect and overlong play, but thanks to such impressive design elements and a generally well-armed cast, it sure has some truly outstanding moments of deep tenderness and goosebump-inducing pathos.