A timely journey into Africa's past - The Convert, review

In a month in which the anti-colonialist, warrior-like stance of President Jammeh has plunged the Gambia into crisis, Danai Gurira’s rich and absorbing play (here, receiving its UK premiere) feels particularly relevant. It’s set in Rhodesia in 1896 and shows, with both clarity and an unswerving emotional power, the tension between ancient African traditions and the new culture instilled by British colonial rule.

Jekesai (Mimi Ndiweni) is a village girl who has been brought by her aunt (Clare Perkins) to the gracious western-style home of minister Chilford (Stefan Adegbola), a local who was converted to Catholicism by missionaries as a child. Jekesai is fleeing a forced marriage to an old man who already has several wives, and Chilford takes the wide-eyed girl under his wing – renaming her Ester and bringing her “out of darkness and into the light”. Ester is a fast learner, and all seems well, but violence (prompted by angry villagers who have been forced to work in the mines) soon comes to Chilford’s gate with tragic consequences.

In the first act of the play, Gurira displays a lightness of touch in showing the cultural differences between Britain and Africa. Chilford is a prissy, self-important figure who litters his speech with slightly off-kilter, florid language. “Recline yourself presently,” he commands Jekesai’s angry uncle. Meanwhile, Jekesai’s aunt who works as Chilford’s servant, has never fully adapted to her master’s western vision, hiding talismans under his chaise longue to ward off bad spirits.

The acting is uniformly good, with Ndiweni subtly showing Jekesai’s transformation while always hinting at the deep psychological rift that comes from expunging one’s family values. Adegbola has fun with the almost camp zealotry of Chilford, even if he is somewhat histrionic in the later scenes. Meanwhile, Joan Iyiola who plays Mistress Prudence, an educated black woman who is engaged to Chilford’s philandering best friend, is heartbreaking as she has to deal with both infidelity and bloodshed (although her proto-feminism seems to have too contemporary a voice).

The power of The Convert is diminished slightly by a melodramatic denouement as violent actions give way to shell-shocked soul searching, but this is nevertheless a play that poses many fascinating questions – not least as to whether education can isolate you if you are not taught with the best intentions.

The play marks the departure of the Gate’s artistic director Christopher Haydon who, with a series of intellectually ambitious international works, has transformed the Notting Hill venue into a destination for discerning theatregoers. The Convert is, by and large, a fitting swansong.

Until February 11. Tickets: 020 7229 0706; gatetheatre.co.uk

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