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One Year On: Looking Back at 'The Convert'

One Year On: Looking Back at 'The Convert'

One year after its performance in October 2019, Director Adedamola Laoye looks back at his production of 'The Convert'

The UK’s Black History Month attempts to cast off the shackles of the negative imagery and stereotypes that have been allowed to fester in wider popular culture, address the historical amnesia of Britain's relationship with Africa and the Caribbean and instead inspire self-pride among a community of black people whose achievements and contributions towards British society, have been much neglected. 

Black History Month this year marked the One-year anniversary of the ADC Theatre’s first black production, The Convert. Prior to directing The Convert, my experience of the ADC Theatre was characterised by  a large degree of wonder and excitement at the prospect of enjoying drama in a theatrical arena which has enabled so many talented actors, writers, and directors to hone their artistic craft. I remember going to see shows every week and observing the stories being told, the meticulously crafted set-designs, sensibilities of the audiences and internally registering what made them laugh when a lull in energy and pace was noticeable and what conjured an emotional and introspective moment. 

After experiencing the cultural impact, the movie, Black Panther, had in instilling a sense of communal pride among black people cross-culturally through it’s reimaging of Africa and the diaspora through a lens untampered by the corrosiveness of Western colonialism I sought out literature which expanded upon the African experience.

My first encounter with Danai Gurira’s The Convert was witnessing Paapa Essiedu, Letitia Wright & co mesmerize audiences at the Young Vic Theatre with an intimate glimpse into how the British system of indirect rule in Africa was destructive to tribal bonds and cultural identities which were replaced by forced labor, imposed taxation and the weaponization of Christianity against indigenous practices and ways of life during the nineteenth century. Danai Gurira successfully depicts how passiveness and disruptive racist ideology has been towards African consciousness despite no white character being present on stage. While the themes are thought-provoking and serious, the play was disarmingly funny and accessible to anyone and for this reason,  I felt Cambridge was ready for a story such as this, to disrupt the prevailing white aesthetic.

The Convert, is situated against the backdrop of the 1896 Bulawayo Uprising in Southern Africa Mashonaland, later renamed Southern Rhodesia in 1923 and Zimbabwe in 1980.  However, Playwright Danai Gurira, who portrayed Okoye in Black Panther, (as I said above, put this piece of info earlier) reconstitutes the erosion of culture kinship ties through her characterisation of Chilford Ndlovu, a native Catholic priest working at the behest of British colonial missionaries seeking to capture the minds, tongues, and postures of the Shona population.  He does so in two steps: first by training them to speak the Queen’s English, and second by rejecting indigenous ritual practices in favor of the wafers of the Christian eucharist. The story follows Jekesai, christened by Ndlovu as Ester, who seeks refuge in his household to avoid a traditional marriage to an elderly man. The arc of the play centers on Chilford’s attempts to remove Jekesai from what he perceives to be barbaric native practices and educate her to become the consummate British Catholic convert. The struggle for identity is central to The Convert, as Jekesai/Ester embarks on a journey to discover her autonomy while Chilford’s seemingly resolute exterior begins to unravel as he calls into question the promises of the white man. 

Staging The Convert in an overwhelming white environment such as Cambridge was a challenge, most noticeably evidenced during the lengthy casting process as there was a limited pool of black students at Cambridge with an interest in acting on stage. Nevertheless,  the talent possessed by the auditionees was undeniable and thus after a 3-month selection process, we had our of cast of seven! The rehearsal process began early in September, as I was keen to foster a deep rapport within the cast and a clear understanding of the nuances of a text steeped in Zimbabwean history and culture. Thankfully, God gave me a cast that not only  trusted me as the director but each other.

As we spent every weekend analyzing the text and blocking the scenes, the significance of the production became increasingly palpable as dealing with the themes of the play  felt very relevant to our 21st-century experiences as Cambridge students. The parallels between Jekesai’s plight and my own as a Cambridge student coming from a background that was intertwined with street culture, I often found it hard embodying the idealized image of what a Cambridge student should look, sound, or be like. While I spend hours listening to the works of composer Thomas Newman, I like many black students, enjoy downtime listening to grime, hip-hop, speak in slang during leisure time and wear hoodies, a much criminalized piece of attire for black men. The lack of representation often creates a feeling that assimilation into the dominant culture and aesthetic within Cambridge was the only way to gain acceptance. However, the conflict of identity is heightened upon returning to my community a much ‘changed’ white-sounding person, an internal conflict and ostracisation Chilford Ndlovu and Jekesai face when being forced to choose between two cultures.

Moreover, as many of the cast and crew were Christians, including myself, we experienced a degree of internal conflict coming to terms with the historical reality that Christian missionaries were complicit in the mission to culturally assimilate African natives indoctrinating Eurocentric cultural sensibilities whilst denigrating indigenous belief system.  However, the ability to apply a critical eye to history and the beliefs and principles that govern our lives is crucial,  and while Gurira, a Christain herself, seemingly places Christianity on trial she does so in a manner that critiques the weaponization of the faith yet emphasizes with genuine spiritual relationship Chilford and Jekesai discover. The discrete humor in her writing was acknowledged through Chilford’s at times overbearing attitude towards prayer and ridiculous theatrical response to the discovery of black magic in his home drew roarous laugher from the audience. It is Gurira’s ability to find the small pockets of humor in the most serious of circumstances is why I believe, The Convert is one of the most important pieces of literature of the last twenty years.

Armed with a higher sense of purpose, The Convert’s cast and crew approached opening night with excitement, nerves, and a collective friendship that would see us prove doubters wrong and showcase our talent. After weeks of preparation and allnighters designing the set to represent  the conditions of an impoverished room furnished with Victorian influence, we were ready! Every department, lighting, sound, set design, and of course, the acting talent was sublime and staged a near-perfect performance on all counts. For the first time, I witnessed black and BAME audiences flood the ADC Theatre’s auditorium and corridors like never before and I felt that deep release within that we had succeeded in our mission. As audiences conversed to the music of the late-great Zimbabwean artist, Oliver Mtukudzi, the importance of providing a platform for diverse forms of literature and culture in the theatre was glaring, and ADC Theatre supported this move. 

The real joy of directing The Convert was working with a diverse group of black actors and crew members. There were of course challenges staging a production of this nature at Cambridge, but I will be eternally grateful to have been surrounded by a passionate and talented group of people who have all sacrificed a lot to participate in the production. Many of them earned their first acting credit within Cambridge Theatre, and their talent far exceeded what one may expect from such an inexperienced ensemble. The fact that all of the actors had to learn the native Shona dialogue, is a testament to their dedication, without doubt justifying the double five-star reviews received.  To this day, I am in awe of them all.  Nurturing diverse young acting talent and narratives adds richness to the storytelling at Cambridge and hopefully the wider creative industry. 

It is fitting that the togetherness of the cast and crew of the ADC’s first black production is still evident a year later as the group chat shows no signs of declining activity. Since the production an unprecedented number of BAME productions were staged within Cambridge University, making the production a real catalyst for change, driving a new wave of writers, actors, and directors forward with the belief that their stories are just as valued - Mwari ngaarumbidzwe! (To God be the glory).

If you have been involved with a show at the ADC Theatre and would like to share your story about it, then email the ADC Archive at archive@adctheatre.com