Review: The Convert

Cynthia Fernando 24 October 2019

‘The Convert’ was already set to be ground-breaking in many aspects, being the first adaptation after Danai Gurira’s original show, Cambridge’s largest all-black cast and crew, and the first ever all-black cast to hit the ADC stage.

However, watching the play on opening night revealed that the play is powerful and original in its own right. Set in Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) in 1896, the play explores one girl’s escape from a forced marriage by conversion to Roman Catholicism under the watchful eye of Chilford, the only black Roman Catholic teacher.

The entire play takes place in Chilford’s home. Stephen Adjadi’s set is an impressive recreation of the Victorian-style home, characterised by stark contrasts between dark and light, and an oppressive cross hanging over everyone throughout. In the second half, the set is more bare, with the absence of embellished furniture exposing the naked brutalism of the architecture, reflecting revelations in the narrative. Stephen’s attention to detail is such that despite white colonialists never taking the stage, the influence of their oppression is never absent.

Image credit: Grace Glevey

The play opens with physical movement, the characters on stage expressing the story through a fluidity and movement that later surrenders to the ordered rigidity of Chilford’s home.

The protagonist is Jekesai (Victoria Chris), christened Ester, a young woman faced with the ultimatum to convert to Roman Catholicism or become the tenth wife of an old man. It is clear that Victoria’s persona is carefully performed. Her movement between the youthful, energetic Jekesai and the composed, dutiful Ester elegantly plays out the dialectical tension between her identity and loyalty, and the salvation her choice to convert brings her, that centres the story. Her self-discovery comes to a satisfying conclusion in her confidence and stability at the end.

In many ways, it is Chilford (Odu Salu) that takes center stage. Odu’s performance is brilliantly nuanced. His stage presence leaves the audience in pin-drop silence, and his stiff-upper lip attitude is the picture of the man longing to be assimilated into the Christian society imposed on him. Odu asserts dominance over other characters, but strategic hesitations and relaxations, and an underlying softness, expose the honest, conflicted man underneath. Odu’s delivery expertly walks a fine line, leaving us at once angry, frustrated, and sympathetic towards a man in an impossible situation.

Loyalty to the native identity is personified in Mai Tamba (Drew Chateau), who moves between making the audience laugh and powerful displays of emotion, drawing the audience’s sympathies. Prudence (Hannah Shury-Smith) stands out as a woman with English composure and speech, who nonetheless still holds on to her heritage. Hannah has a great range, moving from stiff propriety to an accurate portrayal of grief.

Christopher Deane’s performance as Chancellor also points to underlying conflict, the alternative vision of a sophisticated atheistic life qualified by a disposition towards violence. Christopher has an ability to switch from composed to a threatening in an instant, leaving the audience in constant anticipation. Tamba (Dayo Afolabi) and Jekesai’s uncle (Matthew Huchu) form the antithesis to the Christian oppression, their rebellion characterised by graceful movement and composure, countering their branding as ‘savages’.

Image credit: Grace Glevey

Despite the story never leaving Chilford’s home, the characters’ innovative use of space creates an ever-changing atmosphere.

Adédàmọ́lá Láoyè’s direction is filled with intricate detail, right down to the contrast between the walking patterns of Tamba and Chilford. Power dynamics are represented physically in every movement, and strategic positioning on stage draws chilling parallels.

The central themes are also reflected in the lighting. The play opens in bright washes of pink and purple, and moves to the muted sterility of a whitewash, becoming progressively colder and darker.  Lighting designer Deasil Waltho is sensitive to the atmosphere of the play at different points and expertly mirrors the changing political landscape in her design. Some aspects of the story are portrayed through movement without dialogue, and yet is just as effective and powerful, to the credit of Izzie Clark Headley’s intricate syncopation of choreography and sound design.

Image credit: Grace Glevey

Adédàmọ́lá Láoyè’s directorial vision is true to the essence of Danai Gurira’s script, while also presenting something innovative and new to the ADC stage.

His attention to detail is astounding, with no directorial choice made without deference to the underlying themes. From lighting, to sound, to movement and positioning, and the silences just as much as speaking, every aspect of the play is carefully constructed to present a nuanced dialogue about identity, tradition, personal relationships, and colonial occupation. The team behind ‘The Convert’ are a testament to the wealth of talent in the student dramatic scene, and the potential of all aspects of theatre to contribute to a powerful narrative, telling the audience how to think, not what to think.

5 stars.