Review: The Convert
Shocking, challenging and surprisingly funny
Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club have assembled the largest ever all-black cast on the ADC stage for a powerful re-imagining of Danai Gurira's 2012 modern classic.
The year: 1896. The location: Harare, Zimbabwe, then living under its baptismal name, Salisbury. Catholic missionaries who occupy the outpost pray that the population will become similarly Christian.
But most of the Shona speaking people who live in the nearby villages do not care a jot for such efforts. They hold tight to their traditions, language and beliefs, much of it out of respect for their proximate and omnipresent ancestors. How, one character incredulously asks, can the English bury their kin and then retire for tea?
Unfortunately it is not only the bones of family members that lie beneath the ground. Vast repositories of valuable materials have been discovered under ’Mashonland’, with the potential to bring great wealth to the newly arrived British speculators. Enormous colonial land grabs twinned with the intensity of the evangelising missionaries have created a bubbling furnace of hostility, one that threatens to burst at any time.
Thankfully these meaty conflicts aren't too overwhelming to the audience, confined as they are inside the slightly tacky walls of ‘native’ missionary Chilfords’ parlour. Born Ndovlu as the son of a witch-doctor, and played with appropriate grandiosity by Odu Salu, he initially appears an unsympathetic zealot. Soon however, we learn that his animation for converting his 'savage' race to Christianity only mirrors what Jesuit missionaries had subjected to him at the tender age of nine. Salu does an admirable job with this tightrope walk of a character, imbuing him with sympathetic vulnerability as well as ridiculous pretensions.
Onto Chilford's lap lands Jekesai, a vulnerable young girl who has been saved from an arranged marriage by relatives. Victoria Chris stands out as this frighteningly intelligent young woman, who embraces the biblical name 'Ester' in exchange for education and the hope of freedom.
These two lead performances would undoubtedly dwarf a weaker group, but thankfully the rest of the cast were superbly polished. Hannah Shury-Smith as the hyper assimilated Prudence is particularly excellent, throwing out such knowing puns as 'speaking your mother's tongue puts the colour back into your cheeks'. She is perhaps the closest thing we have to the voice of the playwright, her wry and distanced ripostes bordering on divination.
The props and stage department also deserve applause. Compellingly they have placed a large wooden cross behind all the action. It is as if Chilford's faith has metastasised and now casts a shadow over everything he does. I very much enjoyed the metaphor.
My only complaint with this otherwise wonderful production is the transitions between scenes. Though an interesting soundtrack was occasionally to be heard, most changes were silent, which made the actors scrambling off stage a little noticeable. At one point the audience even started clapping when the lights went down. In my opinion the music could be used a little more liberally in the next performances.
Overall this was one of the most adventurous and enjoyable plays I have seen in Cambridge, and would recommend to anyone. It is a feast for the mind and the senses.