Daniel Nelson

 

The Convert

The Convert

Image by Iona Firouzabadi.

The Convert is set in Rhodesia in the 1890s, a historic turning point as Britain consolidated land seizures and administrative control.

It’s the moment “when the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

It’s a moment of transition and of choice. Chilford Ndlovu is absolutely clear: he is a Catholic catechist and aims to be the first black pastor. He’s got the Biblical learning, the clothes and, almost, the language. Stern and authoritative, he has distanced himself from the heathen natives and wants to keep it that way. He wants to convert others, to find a protégé.

Perhaps he has found her in the housekeeper’s daughter, Jekesai, whose eagerness to learn soon overcomes her bare-breasted wonder at Chilford’s smooth cement floors that do not smell of cow dung.

Jekesai, renamed Ester, has qualms but when rescued from marriage to a much older man, throws in her lot with Chilford’s new ways of thinking, unlike her mother, Mai Tamba, and cousin, Tamba, who wants to stick to the traditional ways: “Now you are lost. Forgetting the ways of your peopo. Loving on the whites. What good are they doing, eh? Bringing, this Jesus. You say he give and give till he die. What are they giving eh? They are teking and teking and you want to love them for that?”

The struggle is on, and, with both sides fighting for their lives, it will prove fatal for some.

Though the clash of cultures is real, Zimbabwe-American author Danai Gurira is not afraid to harness anachronism to heighten the drama and the entertainment – notably in the form of Prudence, who wields witty cynicism and frank feminism like a Hollywood southern Belle, and in the language Gurira has created for the formally educated characters: this language veers between pomposity, malapropisms, earnest sincerity, and freshness – a mix that almost collapses into repugnant mockery of the educated native but which is saved by originality and the bearing of the speakers.

This is an ambitious play – bigger and braver than the 75-minute productions that most “alternative” theatre seems to go for these days – on a thought-provoking theme.

* This is a review of The Convert, performed at the Gate Theatre in January and February 2018. A production of the play is at the Young Vic until 26 January 2019

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