Our Guyanese princess is winning the hearts of London theatergoers. The 25-year-old actress recently landed the leading role as Jekesai in the period drama “The Covert” about a young woman in Rhodesia who converts to Catholicism in the late 19th century.
It didn’t require a Marvel blockbuster to bring Danai Gurira’s work as a playwright to the London stage; both Eclipsed and The Convert have previously played at The Gate. But there’s undoubtedly a Black Panther-related boost to this new production at The Young Vic, the profile of both playwright and lead actress Letitia Wright having been raised significantly by their performances in that boundary-pushing film.
As a result, opening night of The Convert in South-East London featured as much excitement as a major West End premiere — but with a noticeably more diverse audience. And director Ola Ince’s vibrant, enormously powerful production certainly delivers on expectations.
Gurira’s 2012 drama charts the perverse nuances of British colonialism in southern Africa, notably the use of Christianity as an insidious tool of religious, cultural and social disruption. Given its potent female characters and the chaos of the current political landscape — not least the former colonizer in danger of casting itself into the international wilderness — it now feels especially relevant. Ince and her uniformly excellent cast bring the piece to life with a combination of verve, poignancy, nerve-shredding tension and a great deal of unexpected humor.
It’s set in 1896 in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Chilford (Paapa Essiedu) is a black Catholic teacher and wannabe priest, piously seeking converts from the local Shona tribespeople. Jekesai (Wright) is a young Shona fleeing from her uncle (Jude Akuwudike), who intends to marry her off for purely transactional purposes. Her aunt, Mai Tamba (Pamela Nomvete), works for Chilford and persuades her master to take the girl on, as both additional servant and a potential new convert. And he quickly comes to regard the newly renamed Ester as the “protege” he’s been longing for.
Despite the serious underpinnings — from the polygamous fate that Jekesai escapes to the speed with which she starts to abandon her family and traditions — the early stages of the play are nimble and witty. Essiedu has fun with a man whose avid desire to become English has its linguistic shortcomings, as when he condemns behavior taking place “under my very nostrils” or describes his day as “a bag of mixtures.” And Wright displays the comic chops that stole so many scenes in Black Panther, sometimes simply using facial responses to garner laughs as the eager, guileless Ester acclimatizes to her new environment, or with her own character’s loopy adventures in the English language, which include a hilariously awful (but for the actress, technically accomplished) rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Venue: Young Vic, London
Cast: Letitia Wright, Jude Akuwudike, Paapa Essiedu, Ivanno Jeremiah, Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo, Rudolph Mdlongwa, Pamela Nomvete
Director: Ola Ince
Playwright: Danai Gurira
Set and costume designer: Naomi Dawson
Lighting designer: Bruno Poet
Music and sound designer: Max Perryment
Projection designer: Will Duke
Presented by The Young Vic