Gate Theatre Notting Hill
The Convert is strong stuff addressing issues of race and religion head on in 2 hours 40 minutes of hard-hitting historical drama.
Zimbabwean-American actor/playwright Danai Gurira has set her play in Salisbury, Rhodesia in 1898. This was a time when the country's founding father (at least in British eyes) Cecil Rhodes himself was still around and Queen Victoria remained resplendently enthroned as her Empire ruled over much of the globe.
The opening smacks of high comedy, as Clare Perkins's Mai Tamba tries to persuade her "Master" Chilford to take in and employ her niece, Jekesai, following the passing of the latter's father leaving the girl under imminent threat of effective sale to an old man by her bride-price seeking uncle.
Chilford, played with suitable pomposity by Stefan Adegbola, is a missionary desperate to convert pagans into good Roman Catholics. Nobody could deny the preacher's sincerity, hardly dented by the knowledge that his career opportunities are limited since the only priests in his country have a different skin colour from his own.
A tug of war ensues between Mai Tamba, with her traditional tribal rituals, and Chilford for the eternal soul and earthly commitment of Jekesai, now very literally re-christened Esther. In this role, the excellent Mimi Ndiweni manages to encapsulate the intelligence and determination of a woman who commits to the Catholic cause fully, becoming a protégée despite the challenges presented by the wider issues at play in giving up her African heritage and language.
At this time and place, these are significant, since the Bantu Shona are rebelling, killing white men including priests in an effort to throw off the yoke of servitude, as well as the BAFU traitor Uncle Toms who follow their cause and religion.
The black struggle, prefiguring later battles that would lead to UDI several generations later, can perhaps best be viewed through the life of Michael Ajao as Esther's cousin Tamba, a man forced into virtual slavery in a mine and eventually unjustly accused of killing its owner.
In order to spice up the debates about colour and religion, we are also introduced to Chilford's brother Chancellor and his fiancée Prudence, an oddly matched couple: he a lecherous businessman, she a haughty intellectual.
Despite Chancellor's bad behaviour, in extremis he shows true nobility in the grimmest scene of the evening.
The drama hots up as the rebellion reaches the town and then the house with devastating consequences that eventually move the play on from the realistic to a symbolic ending.
What sets The Convert apart from so many is its ability to allow viewers to consider old concepts from new and unexpected angles. Even though Danai Gurira's distaste for white hegemony clearly shines through from beginning to end, she can show compassion and sympathy for those with whom she seemingly disagrees.
Christopher Haydon directs intelligently, helped by his cast, from whom Mimi Ndiweni stands out thanks to her silent ability to convey her character's inner thoughts as this fascinating drama unfolds.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher