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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Convert
Gate Theatre   Winter-Spring 2017

As with her previous offering at the Gate, Eclipsed, set in 2003 war-torn Liberia, Danai Gurira's The Convert also takes Africa as its location. This time round it's at the end of the 19th century in that privately run corner of the British Empire known as Rhodesia which later became Zimbabwe (Gurira's homeland). 

And like Eclipsed, it's a similarly bold examination of a struggle for identity, here caught between Christianity and colonialism, played out by an across-the-board five-star cast.

Chilford (Stefan Adegbola) is the upright missionary whose European garb and anxious turn of phrase subvert his genuine desire to convert his fellow people to a foreign Catholic God and Western uprightness. 

His canny housemaid Mai Tamba (Clare Perkins) introduces young Jekesai (Mimi Ndiweni) to join the household, thus helping her avoid an arranged marriage. 

Chilford spots his chance and makes Jekesai his protegee, proudly covering her pagan nakedness and ways with a full-length cotton dress and new name, Esther.

But outside this bubble of perfection, things are decidedly imperfect as the resentments of the local peoples boil over at the dismantling by their British overlords of their traditions and livelihoods. Rebellion is in the air. 

And the local community reflects a deeper split as Esther's Uncle (Marcus Adolphy) and cousin Tamba (Michael Ajao) find themselves pitted against Europeanised Prudence (Joan Iyiola) and Chancellor (Richard Pepple) with Esther caught in between.

The clashes at these various levels come to a head in Act II which racks up the action and emotional pressure but rapidly finds itself cluttered with inconsistencies and loose ends inherited from Act I. Language and actions turn overtly poetic and by numbers, and the metaphors threaten to overwhelm, rescued by Esther's heart-rending eleventh hour monologue.

But these are strong characters throughout, fuelled by a similarly strong cast with tight direction from Christopher Haydon who keeps the issues to the fore without squeezing out the performances. He neatly balances too the bilingual element where the use of speech in Shona is a regular and potent statement of identity.

Following American and South African identity dramas, Gurira takes a lesser-known time and place and makes it her own, showing how conversion to religion and the subjugation of colonialism have little to offer in the way of salvation but instead throw up further barriers between the sexes and races, between the traditional and modern world, subverting the empowerment of women while dispossessing their men. 

And by refusing to glorify the noble savage every character in The Convert is flawed, they're human after all Gurira creates a powerful argument against the dangers of imposing ill-thought out change that has a resonance for us all.

Nick Awde

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Review -   The Convert - Gate Theatre 2017

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