Forgive Us Our Debts
The project examines personal, corporate, and public debt in the UK within a moral framework. (2019)
Anna Wheeler reviews ‘The Convert’ at the Young Vic, exploring themes of conversion and identity. 11/02/2019
The play The Convert at the Young Vic theatre invites us to think about the issues of race, politics, religious identity and assimilation in 1895’s Southern Africa Mashonaland – shortly renamed Southern Rhodesia, then later becoming Zimbabwe. One could easily become embroiled in the benefits, or not, of Christian missionaries in Africa, but I came away with thoughts more about what we mean when we talk about becoming and belonging. These themes apply to anyone at any time and in any country.
Jekesai (an honest and vital Letitia Wright) is a young girl who is forced into marriage by her family, but manages to escape them. She discovers Christianity with the help of a Catholic African teacher, himself recruited from his ancestor–worshipping tribe by Jesuits at the age of nine. But anticolonial sentiments come to a vicious head, and Jekesai must choose between her new European God and the spirits of her ancestors.
With western eyes, we see Jekesai escaping something that will trap her but when she is forced to renounce her name, her language, her clothes and with that her demeanour, one can’t help but question if she is simply going from one tribal trap to another. She is stripped of her original identity and later denied a trip to an ancestral ceremony in her family because she is no longer ‘part of it’. The new Christianity she finds herself part of may send her to school where she gets a decent education, but it also tells her that her past is nothing. Yet it is her past which has formed her to the valued human she is, in God’s eyes. She is who she is because of that past.
These two cultures are fighting against each other – one is labelled as a ‘tribe’ but the other is no less tribal in its behaviour and judgement. Religion becomes cultish when it is like this. People can feel that their roots are rubbished by a faith that believes itself to be more elite. Jekesai has been forced to reject her own culture to become ‘civilised’, to become better, but that ‘better’ is only the ideal of the new tribe she now exists within.
In her poem ‘Bone’, Mary Oliver says ‘I believe I will never quite know. Though I play at the edges of knowing, truly I know our part is not knowing, but looking, and touching, and loving’. This has wisdom here. No group or tribe should fixate on its own rightness or knowledge, particularly when it involves demeaning others. The new Christianity that Jekesai became part of was certain of its own certainty – with fatal consequences to those it was proud to ‘convert’.
We all probably aspire to be better than we are, to be the best we can be, at some point in our lives. And this in itself is not bad. But who sets the benchmark – where does that come from? How do we know when we reach it and what have we become, or what have we done to others, in the process? Religion shouldn’t make us think we have ‘made it’. The journey is never complete and we get things wrong along the way. We never fully become, and even if we are lucky enough to belong to something seemingly safe, truthful and strong, it doesn’t mean we should close off to where we came from, where we go, and who we share that journey with.
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