Black Panther stars Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira team up once again, this time bringing us Southern African-inspired Black Girl Magic in the critically acclaimed Young Vic stage play, The Convert.
Having stolen our hearts as Shuri in Black Panther, Letitia Wright takes on the lead role in The Convert, written by fellow alum and award-winning writer Zimbabwean-American Danai Jekesai Gurira (who played Okoye in the movie). We all expected that Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first season as the Young Vic Artistic Director had to be special and programming this play sets the perfect tone.
The evolution of Jekesai (Letitia’s character, which also means to illuminate) and her conversion begins with her escape from an uncle who wishes to marry her off to an old man who already has many wives. Her aunt, Ma Tamba, is house keeper to a devout and overly earnest Catholic called Chilford, who yearns to become a priest. Convinced to take Jekesai in, Chilford promptly gives her the biblical name Ester. She is eventually stripped of not just her name but her culture, traditions and family; denouncing everybody and everything for the love of Christ.
Set 130 years ago in colonized southern Africa (now Zimbabwe), the poignancy of this play and the reiteration of it (last year its initial critically acclaimed run was at The Gate Theatre), stands on its universal themes; identity, belonging and obligation. Aided by an imaginative set of a looming crucifix and symbolic mesh walls that rise and fall, invoking displacement and summoning all at once.
“I was delving into the history of my own people and who I could have been if I had been born 120 years ago.” – Danai Gurira
Each character is bereft in some way, struggling with the expectations of family, community, religion the consequences of either challenging or conforming to those pressures as colonized people. Under the direction of Ola Ince, this is a piece of theatre where the whole ensemble shines. From Wright’s breadth of performance as her character assimilates, to the risible moments from Paapa Essiedu’s ridiculously earnest priest in waiting and the gravitas Ivanno Jeremiah brings on stage as Chancellor belying his years. Prudence’s devastatingly deft Victorian English mannerisms, the lingering arrogance of Uncle, an authentic, impassioned Aunt Ma Tamba and the duplicity of cousin Tamba being both victim and victimizer, outstandingly played by Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo, Jude Akuwudike, Pamela Nomvete and Rudolphe Mdlongwa. What Gurira does so deftly with her three-dimensional characters, brilliant dialogue and salient storytelling is give you a serious history lesson along with a spoon full of humour.
In conversation with Kwame Kwei- Armah on her process which began in 2009 and was inspired by her high school education in Zimbabwe she clarifies her inspiration: “I took a step back and started to ask who I was, because I have so many influences – what I aspire to, and how I excel – which are all defined by those who colonized us. These feelings culminated in me, and I found that I wanted to navigate my people’s story through our perspective on stage…I was delving into the history of my own people and who I could have been if I had been born 120 years ago.”
This reflection perhaps explaining why The Convert feels like medicine; you are left inspired and a little wiser…and there’s no better magic than that.
The Convert is showing at Young Vic until 26 January 2019
66 The Cut
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