I’ve been sitting for a little while now, trying to express exactly what I think about The Convert, and it’s proving difficult because everything I have to say feels cheap in the shadow of this play’s absolute magnificence.
In many ways, I suppose that this is a play about what it means to belong. This thread runs through the discussions of culture, religion and gender, pulling them all together to offer some insight into what it was to live a life so utterly removed from our own. As a result of this, there’s areal sense of an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’. Within the tightly controlled space of the mission building which doubles as Chilford’s home, nothing is left to chance. Language, expression of faith and even names are subject to tight restrictions. This perceived sanctuary is marked on the stage by a cool cube of concrete and gauze: a marked contrast with the cracked red ‘earth’ that surrounds it. The progression of the play is dependent in part on the destruction of this space, and this to me felt very symbolic of the metaphorically consecrated spaces that so often emerge as a result of colonialism.
Given the sway that colonial powers hold over this piece, it’s intriguing to see how they are handled. Mine owners and unjust authorities playa very key role here, but they never once appear on stage- all that we see is the fallout from their activities. They become a force that exerts a remarkable level of control, even in their own absence. On the other side of this, the one thing that colonialism couldn’t remove is the synthesis of multiple languages. Danai Gurira’s script is written in combination with another language that I didn’t recognise, but which the gentleman sitting next to me helpfully identified as Shona. The side effect of this is that some moments go partially untranslated and therefore inaccessible for much of the audience, but, in my opinion, the authenticity is more than worth it. In a play about colonialism, there would be nothing more hypocritical than to erase the region’s language and accents.
One of the many things this play does wonderfully is its exploration of how morality ties into social circumstances. So many of the characters commit horrifying acts, both on and off stage, but equally it’s all but impossible to detach these from the situations in which they take place. Guira doesn’t shy away from this complexity, but neither does she use it to justify or to erase the grey areas.
It wouldn’t be fair to try to write anything about this production without talking about Letitia Wright. I haven’t seen Black Panther (I’m sorry) and so this was my first real exposure to her. I don’t think many actors could do justice to the quiet wisdom that her character grows into over the course of the play- it’s such a nuanced and often externally understated process, but Wright seems to have tapped all the way into the heart of the character and therefore the play itself.
Really, this is one of those plays that reminded me why I love all this. It builds something absolutely beautiful both visually and thematically, offering an often-overlooked perspective on the spirituality and domino effects tied into colonialism without crossing into the contriving or forced.
The Convert is playing at the Young Vic until 26 Jan 2019. For further information and tickets, click here.