You may know award winning playwright Danai Gurira as Michonne from The Walking Dead series, or the lead in Mother of George (2013) and / or that she’s been cast in the eagerly anticipated upcoming Marvel Black Panther movie. She is also the writer of the award winning play Eclipsed, which debuted in the UK, and its Broadway run starring Lupita Nyong’o. It could be argued that Gurira’s ability to occupy and articulate such variety as an actor and creator has fed her understanding of creating complex characters.
Evident again as she makes a return to the UK, her new play, The Convert. Set in Mashona and Matabeleland (modern day Zimbabwe) in 1896 when white intruders are attempting to colonise, the story follows Jekesai (Mimi Ndiweni – Mr Selfridge, Cinderella), our convert, who is the niece of Mai Tamba (Clare Perkins – Family Affairs, EastEnders), and house help to Chilford (Stefan Adegbola – Doctor Who), a staunch Catholic man who has long since left his Ndebele culture in favour of an English style lifestyle. Mai Tamba convinces Chilford he needs more house help and that Jekesai (who when they are introduced, only speaks Shona) would make a keen student of the religion he loves so much. Mai Tamba while trying to give her niece a better future is unknowingly sowing the seeds for a journey of loss which will turn Jekesai into the almost English, Ester.
Adegbola seems to have a penchant for Zimbabwean characters, having performed so well in May Sumbwanyambe’s, Alfred Fagon Audience Award winning After Independence. As Chilford he is captivating. There was some unashamedly girl crushing on Joan Iyiola (Yondaland) as Prudence the sugar addicted, smoking, highly educated feminist. Iyiola is mesmerising, not only in the character’s freshness and approach to life and loss, but as a modern African woman, a proud Ndebele speaker, who took attempts to understand the European but not to be one.
The second half of the play opens with a scene where we see nearly all the cast on stage; it is overwhelming in the power of the performances.
Jekesai/Ester’s accent and mannerisms have been changing throughout the play, gradually like a ticking time bomb. At moments her mispronunciation and innocence are used to comic effect, at others her new found articulation and later single-mindedness are dark and disturbing. The range Ndiweni plays in the performance is commendable and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this brave young actress is one to watch.
The cast which also includes Michael Ajao (Cuffs, Attack the Block) and Richard Pepple (Beasts of No Nation), despite a noticeably waning generic African accent from Marcus Adolphy (Scott & Bailey) – albeit a decent performance, are faultless. From the cast, to the writing, the set; the staging; the costumes, this is the best play I’ve seen, since I See You (written by Mongiwekhaya, directed by Noma Dumezweni and starring Desmond Dube). Both of which make me very proud to be Southern African.
The Convert, is an outstanding piece of work; a moment in the history of Zimbabwe exploring how human identity is shaped and what we will do to for the things we believe in.
A MUST see.
The Convert finishes its run Saturday 11th February. To book tickets for its final performance go to the Gate Theatre website