“A big moment for us, and a big moment for Cambridge”
“Is Mai Tamba someone who would sweep the floor slowly or as though she were on a mission?” As the voice of director Adédàmọ́lá Láoyè echoes behind me, Drew Chateau (Mai Tamba) pauses, tilts her head, then proceeds to mime with renewed rigour. I’m sitting in the second row of the ADC Theatre, watching the scene unfold before Set Designer Stephen Ajadi’s living-room: an exquisite stylistic rendition of nineteenth-century British-occupied Zimbabwe, complete with blue-velvet curtains and a maroon-leather chaise. It’s just a dress-rehearsal, but a strangely immersive experience nonetheless.
There’s dialogue both on-stage and off, between actors, actresses and the production team alike: “Would it be more jarring to have Ester next to Chilford?” “You should say the line “It is our way” with more gravity – with higher stakes”. I can feel the collaborative energy; everyone is paying meticulous dramatic attention to each and every line and action. It takes me back to Drew’s words from our brief interview: “[the play is] just a great piece of art”.
But there’s much more to Week 2’s Michaelmas main show, The Convert, than ‘just’ – though it sounds a little odd to say this – dramatic precision. As director Láoyè puts it, “it’s a play that resonates with a lot of people, about a journey of discovery, pain, loss and identity. The themes within it are so wide-ranging and nuanced – it’s accessible to everyone”. Danai Gurira’s 2012 play, The Convert, illustrates the female protagonist’s struggle for identity when she is confronted by “the ultimatum” – to use Láoyè’s words – “to either become Catholic, or become the tenth wife of an old man”. His direction is particularly conscious of the central character’s tussle between living as Jekesai, beloved daughter of her Rhodesian family, or as Ester, apprentice to Chilford, the only black Roman Catholic teacher in the region.
“I really resonate strongly with her character because of what she is going through. It’s something that everyone goes through at some time – that conflict between what you are supposed to do and what you are meant to do. We’ve all been in that situation”, explains Láoyè. Odu Salford (Chilford), says the same: “The main theme of trying to find identity is encapsulated in Jekesai’s conflict, and that’s really something that transcends a play”. Drew tells me that this is particularly relevant to a university setting, where people can “become a different person”.
Religious identity and uncertainty is a huge feature of The Convert. Láoyè is open to share his response to it as a Christian himself: “At times, watching this, it was hard to reconcile how Christianity was packaged when it was first taken to Africa, and what that might mean for my faith. But even though it might look like the playwright is putting Christianity on trial, it’s still important to apply a critical eye to this to get to the truth of what happened”.
Some might consider these themes of religious, national and personal identity to be a little too serious for a term-time evening activity, but Láoyè assures me that The Convert is an exception: “A lot of the times, plays to do with slavery and colonialism can feel quite heavy, especially for a largely white audience who might not know how to react. But Danai Gurira invites everyone into this story – it’s not about making people feel guilty. I just think that The Convert is very discreetly funny, which humanises the play”.
There is an undeniable excitement when I talk to the cast and crew. For Odu, it’s a reminder of all the things that he missed about theatre: “I used to do a fair bit of drama at a school level, but I got to my first year of university and realised I hadn’t done any since. I thought it would be nice to get back into it, and I met everyone – we’re a family now – and it’s just the best thing”. For Drew, it’s a reiteration of her love for drama, and a chance to respond to the very play that she saw at the Young Vic in December 2018: “I saw The Convert there and it was so good. I love being part of our version: it’s a great play, but there’s also something greater than that for all of us”.
Director Láoyè stresses that The Convert is a “a big moment for us, and a big moment for Cambridge”. Not only is it the first ever student adaptation of Danai Gurira’s original, but it is also the largest ever all-black cast and crew that has entered the Camdram scene, and the first ever all-black play to be put on at the ADC theatre. “I couldn’t have asked for a more committed, dedicated and hardworking cast. Three of the actors had no acting credits prior to this show – I can’t believe that. I can’t emphasise the level of talent we have here. When I first started, I couldn’t imagine that it would be a team like this.”
Don’t miss out on this “big moment” –
7.45pm from Tuesday 22nd – 26th October 2019! Tickets for The Convert are available here: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/the-convert/