Brilliant new 1896 drama from Danai Gurira about cultural (and actual) imperialism
Think drama set in the 1890s and you might well think of sitting room squabbles over cucumber sandwiches. Nothing more than propriety is damaged, nothing more than a precariously balanced teacup is smashed. Danai Gurira's astonishing follow up to 'Eclipsed' never leaves a drawing room in colonial Rhodesia - but it's agonisingly tense, and the stakes are huge.
The convert of the title is Jekesai (a lively, nuanced Mimi Ndiweni), a young woman who arrives as a servant straight from the forest. Her bare breasts are covered with a rough linen dress, she's renamed Ester, and she's immediately indoctrinated into the alien rites of furniture polish and serving afternoon tea. And into the ways of a new god, too, one who demands prayers chanted in faltering English and the utter renouncement of her family.
But her allegiance to her master Chilford (Stefan Adegbola), an African would-be Catholic priest who lives in what was a white missionary's house, marks her out as one of the 'bafu' – the group targeted by villagers who feel they're aping whites, and benefiting from the fruits of the colonialists' vast and violent land grab.
Ester's aunt Mai Tamba (Clare Perkins) dances between the two worlds, curtseying to Chilford but saying animist chants and hiding protective charms behind sofa cushions when he's out. And Prudence (a wonderfully funny, sharp Joan Iyiola) might be trussed up in neat Victorian finery, but she's wise enough not to go shoving Catholicism in the face of her furious extended family.
Gurira's play never shows us the white settlers: its skill is in showing us how seamlessly their cultural norms impose themselves over an ancient society, suffocating rituals and tearing families apart. You could imagine director Christopher Haydon's production unfolding in a space ten times bigger than his tiny Gate Theatre: it's lip-chewingly tense, and achieves the tough task of making the Gurira's meticulously researched use of mangled Queen's English or animist rituals feel natural, not exoticised or laughable.
You're left a bit breathless, a bit startled, a bit in awe at how one play can hold so many contradictions in balance. At its heart is religion, and yet Gurira clears the way for faith (of any kind) to be a guiding light through, as well as the cause of, all this mess. It's a courageous ending to a brilliantly textured look at a landgrab that started in the fields, and finished in drawing rooms.