The Convert

Reviewer's Rating

The Convert is a historical play that explores Africa’s fraught colonial past. Jekesai (Letitia Wright) seeks refuge from her uncle (Jude Akuwudike) because he wants to sell her in marriage for cattle after her father’s death. She is supported by her cousin (Rudolphe Mdlongwa) and protected by her aunt Mai Tamba (Pamela Nomvete) who petitions for her to become a servant in the household of the devout missionary Chilford (Paapa Essiedu). Chilford reluctantly obliges on the condition that she adopt the Christian faith; The Convert follows Jekesai’s struggle to reconcile her African heritage with the religion of colonisers.

The play begins with the speaking of African vernacular, tribal dancing and the superstitious Mai Tamba hiding bone talismans around her master’s household. She works as Chilford’s maidservant and refuses to renounce her indigenous spirituality even though he abhors such things. However, they manage to share an amiable relationship and she demonstrates that she is a kind-hearted person by safeguarding her niece: Pamela Nomvete plays this maternal role with lyrical comedy, since she is able to get away with mischief in her native tongue which Chilford does not understand.

Letitia Wright is the standout of the show, exhibiting a spectrum of skill in acting, initially full of levity but then becoming solemn and heart-wrenching near the end. As Jekesai she is prone to wild celebration in a tribal manner that is often characterised in the play as savage and inferior. Gradually she is taught about the Bible and the life of Jesus, which transforms her into a more pious and Anglicised woman with a new name – Ester, after the biblical figure. She is intelligent and willing to absorb all this new information about English culture because she is grateful that Chilford has saved her from becoming attached to a polygamous lecher. The nuances of Wright’s performance are excellent: she portrays in detail a carefree native and then conservative acolyte through gesticulation, facial expression and an increasingly confident grasp of English. She is an actress perhaps more familiar to the younger generation from being in shows such as Black Mirror, Cucumber, Doctor Who – here again she proves herself as a rising star.

The set design displays the antagonism between coloniser and colonised in its separation of a manicured household with the cracked earth outside. Chilford earnestly adopts many English customs in his home to evidence his loyalty to the British crown; it isn’t too far into the play when he invokes Queen Victoria as bestowing power onto him. In his house much fuss is made over tea-pouring rituals, which are performed with all the revelry of Pope’s grateful liquors and smoking tides, but later we see that whiskey replaces tea as the favoured beverage when vice and despair grip the characters.

Chilford’s wealthy brother is the chancellor (Ivanno Jeremiah) who is engaged to the educated and irreverent Prudence (Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo). The pair seem happy at first glance but we soon find out that there’s trouble in paradise: the chancellor’s infidelity serves only to stir up Prudence’s contempt for a society that clips her wings. The white colonisers exert a constricting hold over the Zulu community – shocking revelations and developments lead Jekesai to question her identity and place in the world when she perceives so much cruelty around her. The Convert is an accomplished and poignant play about race, gender and the not-too-distant gory past.