October is Black History Month, and from Tuesday 22 to Saturday 26 October we are proud to be staging Danai Gurira’s ‘The Convert’, starring the largest all-black cast the ADC Theatre has seen. In this interview, Director Dami Laoye discusses the play’s importance to the present day and what he hopes a modern audience will take from its compelling interrogation of a pivotal point in colonial history.
What do you want audiences to discuss after seeing The Convert?
After being transported back to a time in history when the British Empire and its systems of indirect rule dominated the political landscape and interpersonal relations of many African nations, I hope audiences can glean the parallels between the struggles of the play’s central characters and the obstacles that the legacies of colonisation still have on 21st century Britain.
The historical reality of colonisation is the cornerstone of Danai Gurira’s narrative and she depicts how indirect rule ripped apart tribal loyalties, family bonds, Shona language and culture to replace them with systems of taxation, forced labour, foreign religions and incompatible cultural norms.
Racism in the UK tends to operate on a covert level; therefore, I hope audiences understand how pervasive the system of colonisation and racism was and is, despite no white characters on display. I hope a discussion about which characters were and weren’t able to negotiate British rule and culture takes place as we unpack what characteristics the ‘Converted’ and ‘Unconverted’ possessed. Lastly, I hope people see this play as a struggle for identity and a discussion about how we all negotiate our disparate identities as we occupy this space in Cambridge.
Language is a key aspect of the play, with dialogue delivered in both English and Shona. Has this been a challenge in rehearsals?
Getting to grips with the dialogue delivered in Shona has definitely been a challenge for the cast and I; however, we collectively agreed it was important to maintain a strong sense of realism. We wanted audiences to walk into the auditorium and truly escape into 19th-century Zimbabwe, dealing with the realities of colonisation. Thankfully, we were able to tap into the rich Zimbabwean cohort at Cambridge and they have helped to explain complex sentences, meanings and cultural adages. I think the use of Shona is used at certain points of the play by particular characters as a form of resistance to British cultural hegemony, accusatory to characters who are seen as ‘Bafu’ (traitors) and a tool in which characters reclaim traditional Shona identity for themselves. For all these reasons the actors have worked incredibly hard to stay true to the richness of the text.
What does this play set in the nineteenth century say about us in the modern-day?
The Convert contains so many nuanced and multifaceted themes that are still relevant today despite its 19th-century context. It’s arguable that for all social changes that have taken place over the last two centuries… The past is never dead, it’s not even past.
Book your tickets for The Convert here.