September 19, 2020

Danai Gurira is an actor and playwright. She was born on February 14, 1978 was born in Iowa, USA and moved to Zimbabwe at the age of 5, returning to the USA as a young adult and gaining a degree in Psychology. She also has a Masters degree in Fine Arts (Acting).

Childhood & her inspiration for writing

I’m a child of academics. My father is a chemistry professor, my mother is a librarian. So I grew up around books, I grew up around academic speak, I grew up around academics in general, so I’m kind of a natural researcher. I like to get to know things, I like to delve deep, I like to find out interesting details. When I get fascinated by a time period or an issue or historical aspects of things, I like to go into those things and really start to use them to inform what I dramatically create.

“Born into this world as an African girl, I never understood the absence of voices and people who were similar to me,” says Gurira. “It never made sense to me that I couldn’t see that representation. The very massive magnitude of content you get in television and film, and yet there was this almost absolute absence of the stories of women from the continent and of the continent. It didn’t make sense and I didn’t accept any ideas as to why it wasn’t there. It just needed to be there.” The solution? “It just has to happen, and I guess I’ll have to do it.”

Danai’s career first blossomed as a playwright, with stage productions such as The ConvertFamiliar, and Eclipsed (staged at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2009 with a young understudy by the name of Lupita Nyong’o, who later starred in the show for its 2016 Broadway run). Danai has provided searing tales of women both in and from Africa that would otherwise remain trapped in a pop cultural vacuum. Through her work, she has given a voice to the voiceless.


Below she discusses The Convert and what inspires her writing.

“My theater life began pretty early on. I was born in the United States but raised in Zimbabwe. I actually spent a lot of time in theater there as a child. I was part of a children’s performing arts workshop, which really introduced me to the dramatic arts. The head of it, one of the founders, is a professor in English and Dramatic Arts.  He taught at University of Zimbabwe for several years, but originally, he’s a white South African/Brit.  He indoctrinated me into theater back then and got me very interested in the craft. And then it just kind of snowballed, throughout high school and into college, though I wasn’t a theater major in college, I was a psychology major.”

In terms of writing, I just wasn’t finding enough stories about contemporary African people—or historical, just anything, the whole gamut.” 

“I was raised in southern Africa and I came back to the West for college.  I was starting to look for what I would like to perform, what I would like to see put to life onstage, and I was finding many stories about everybody else, but none about my own people. My playwriting became a “necessity being the mother of invention” type thing. I wasn’t finding what I wanted to perform, so I started to create it myself.”

“I thought I should write because I was tired of the single-dimensional stories or depictions.  I started to write because these are not the people I know of or grew up around.  I started to write because I thought it was fascinating how Chekhov put his people on the map through a love of them, but also through recognizing how flawed and complex they were.  And I actually saw a lot of parallels between that society of late 1800s Russia and the societies I grew up in, ironically.”

There were so many things that were lacking in the expression of the African story and voice that I felt it was something close to a crime.  And I was tired of seeing the depictions that were so single-dimensional and were really catering to, bizarrely, always a Western protagonist being at the core of a story that’s supposedly about Africans. 

You know, the lovely exotic backdrop. 

It’s poisonous to the African because it tells us that our stories don’t have the right to be told, but it’s also poisonous to the Westerner, because it tells them that their stories are the stories that must be told before anybody else’s.  And so, in both regards it’s very dangerous.  It’s perpetuating an identity of inferiority and it’s perpetuating an identity of superiority.  And both of those things are very dangerous. 

“So I love that I’m able to do plays in the West that are very much from the African subjective and complex voice, and that a Western audience sits and absorbs that story and it goes with people into their consciousness.   I think that is necessary and it’s normal to do, actually, in the West.  I reject the idea that in order for a story to be marketable or feasible, it needs to come from the Western protagonist’s perspective.  And I write against that completely by writing African protagonists and putting them on the stage across the United States.”

“There are so many times that that is not allowed to co-exist. And one gets deeply compromised for the other. And there are many women in the world, girls in the world, who are not exploring other sides of themselves because they don’t feel like they can be one thing and another at the same time. And the world loses out on that potential. So if these images in any way, shape, or form can affect a girl’s realization that I can be whatever I need, want to be, whatever I feel my heart’s calling me to be, and I want to explore that to its fullest. For me, that’s everything. There’s some way that we can hit the minds of girls and women and free them of whatever shackle, in the form of a wig or whatever else.”

“So I felt the need to explore my own Zimbabwean identity and the country as a whole the only way I know how, which is through dramatic writing. So I started to create; I went back. The Convert is part one because it’s where I go back to the inciting incident, which is really when Zimbabwe, which was called Rhodesia, or Southern Rhodesia, became a colony. That inciting incident, the concept of ownership and the concept of cultural identity, and the concept of right and wrong and moral ideals, all these things still flood who we are today. The Convert is set in the 1890s, when the first uprising against the colonial structure occurred. And for me that’s really where that inciting incident rests. I could go further back, honestly, but you know, the largest inciting incident was when two very major ethnic groups in Zimbabwe—what is now Zimbabwe—the Shona and the Ndebele, rose up against the Western ideology. And of course the question of faith, and the new Christian identity that was coming into Zimbabwe, which is very strong in Zimbabwe now, that’s also where it was starting and really taking root. So The Convert was really exploring all of that in myself, being a Christian, being a Zimbabwean, being someone who loves the culture of my country as well. All those things are part of me as well, but it’s all rooted in a play about the 1890s.”

“Everything I learn hits me in a different way than when I went to Liberia.  I was very connected with that, but as an African. When women would share their stories of what they went through during the wretched civil war that happened there, they would embrace me as a sister and share very intimate details with me. They trusted me, they looked at me as family. Which is deeply humbling and a beautiful thing to experience, and also a great responsibility to take their stories and try and give them voice.”

“In terms of this, it’s just a whole other level of personal.  Because The Convert is inspired somewhat by stories I know of my maternal grandfather’s aunt, who has a very similar story to the lead character, to a point. She fled her family, went to the Catholic church, became a nun, a little after the period of The Convert but not much after. My own grandmother, who became a very staunch Methodist, asked her father if she could go and join the missionaries and learn under them, and became a teacher.  She stepped out of a very specific cultural system—her father was a very powerful chief. And he allowed her to go, he became a Christian too—he didn’t give up his wives, but he became a Christian, too. This is my history. There were all sorts of things that were going on that are very personal to me. That it’s just exploring my own identity, really, that’s a different level than anything else I’ve ever done.”

“And I think that that the next battle, the next big battle, is really giving Africans’ subjective voices on both the big and the little screens. As an actor and as a writer who talks to possible collaborators on film and TV projects, I can tell you it is a massive battle, to get that concept of telling the African story from the Western realm on screen and having that be considered something palatable and marketable.  That’s the next step.  There’s tons of writers, there’s tons of stories, that’s not the problem.  I think the problem is that there’s a mentality still in that realm that very strongly prevents it.”

The Walking Dead

While Danai burst onto the scene as the katana queen, Michonne, in season 3 — a warrior with a will as strong and as sharp as the katana blade she wields ferociously to take out the undead — the 42-year-old is finally sheathing her blade. In Season 10 episode, “What We Become,” Michonne takes her leave of the show, almost exactly eight years after her first appearance in the closing moments of Season 2.

She says of the role, “I had a practice sword made of wood. So I would be talking about the language components of the play while learning how to move my body with the sword. It was on my mind all the time. I felt like I needed to become one with … not only with the character, but with how she moves and how her weapon moves in her hand. I create black female characters, and I’d never imagined a woman like this. So I wanted to give her my all, to do her justice. I would practice with the sword during every break, and I would constantly go back to the trainer to learn more. It was never, “Oh, I’m great at this now.” It was a constant learning curve.”

Black Panther

Marvel Studios BLACK PANTHER Okoye (Danai Gurira) Credit: Kwaku Alston/©Marvel Studios 2018

You get the impression, from the way that she talks about it, that Danai very much loved playing Okoye (the general of the Dora Milaje) and the Royal Family’s personal guard in Black Panther

“I’m also an African; It’s very important to me how African stories are told. So initially, I was like, “Okay, let me find out what this is.” And then I heard Ryan Coogler was involved and I was like, that’s amazing. Because I love how he approaches his storytelling. I was just floored by his vision, how authentic he was making it, how powerful he was making it, how complex he was making the female characters. He’d done so much research and was intertwining that into this, you know, really epic idea of a film. I was like, this has never been seen! He was so willing to allow us to come to the table and bring our thoughts, and allowed for us to feel such ownership. So those are really the elements that really excited me as a writer, as an actor. This is how I like to work — as an artist, while I’m working with someone who has such a strong vision, who has a vision that feels so right and so important to me. And I feel like it will to many, many others. And also [Ryan’s] coming at it from a very authentic and truthful, powerful, courageous place.”

“And as an activist, my most passionate place for me is around girls and women and advocacy therein. It was very, very important that these women be very complex, that they are powerful. They are confident, they are flawed because they are real, you know? You want real, you know what I mean? You want real and you want powerful so that girls can realize, “I can relate to it,” or something truthful, but [they] could also aspire to it. Like “I could be her.” I could become an amazing scientist like Shuri. Or I could become the general of an army like Okoye, or

I could become a woman who doesn’t just fall into her man’s arms when he shows that he still loves her, like Nakia — who still has a vision for her life and for the world and impacts the mind of her man for the better.”

“All those things are very exciting for young girls to see. What I loved about the Dora Milaje is that they have this combination of being both very feminine with our tattoos on our bald heads, but at the same time we’re covered from head to toe, which I thought was very elegant and cool and revolutionary, really. [They’re] not standing around in next to nothing [and] at the same time, still extremely feminine and regal and beautiful.”

“There are so many times that that is not allowed to co-exist. And one gets deeply compromised for the other. And there are many women in the world, girls in the world, who are not exploring other sides of themselves because they don’t feel like they can be one thing and another at the same time. And the world loses out on that potential. So if these images in any way, shape, or form can affect a girl’s realization that I can be whatever I need, want to be, whatever I feel my heart’s calling me to be, and I want to explore that to its fullest. For me, that’s everything. There’s some way that we can hit the minds of girls and women and free them of whatever shackle, in the form of a wig or whatever else.”

After The Walking Dead & Black Panther

Teaming up once again with her lead Eclipsed actress and Black Panther costar Lupita Nyong’o, Danai is bringing a 10-episode miniseries adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah to the new streaming service HBO Max. The story centers on a woman named Ifemelu who leaves Nigeria to study in the United States, only to return years later and be reunited with a former flame and discover how their lives have changed while living on different continents.

But instead of starring in front of the camera, Danai is moving behind it. The Tony-nominated playwright is not only working on the script for the series, she will also be acting as the showrunner for the project. Why would a star of Danai’s caliber want to put herself through the wildly unglamorous nitty-gritty grind of a job that requires such attention to every single detail of production — from costume design to location scouting to the story itself?

“I’ve always wanted to helm a creation for the screen,” says Danai, noting that she moved to Los Angeles in 2012 expressly for that purpose. “I’m an avid TV watcher. I watch a lot of things. I’ve watched how television has evolved over the last couple decades. Great television really, really excites me.”

Not only does Danai not plan on acting alongside Lupita in Americanah (“I have utterly no intention of being on the screen”), but she already has other behind-the-scenes work lined up as well, recently signing a two-year deal with ABC Studios to develop, write, and produce content across all platforms. That doesn’t mean she is done starring in front of the camera. “There’s definitely a lot of acting stuff lined up in the future that I’m very excited about,” she notes.

She also has become something of a style icon, recognizing and promoting fashion as an art form in itself. “I’ve started to pay a lot more attention to the astounding art craftsmanship that goes into creating great pieces of clothing,” Gurira says, “and the style that different folks have around how they create a look and a feel for their brand.” But Gurira’s purest passion outside of work goes all the way back to the lack of opportunities she noticed as a young girl — and doing something to close that gap in gender inequality. “When I was about 9, it really became clear to me that there was this massive disparity between what girls could do in the world versus boys and men,” says Gurira. “I was expected to be less based on my gender.”

In the hopes of leveling the playing field and making sure that females both young and old are offered “the same opportunities and appropriate protections” as males, Danai founded Love Our Girls in 2016, a website and monthly newsletter that highlights issues impacting women worldwide as well as the people and organizations working to raise recognition of those issues. “The hope is that the people who do get exposed to these organizations and these stories through Love Our Girls get engaged in ways they didn’t expect, and get connected, and start bringing their own contributions to the fore,” she explains. “The thing I know I can do is bring awareness to the work that’s being done, and to the experiences that are unacceptable that are still occurring.”

Awareness and representation are at the heart of why Danai has chosen to endure late nights, rewrites, budget meetings, audition tapes, and charting the course of an international production over 10 episodes. Because it’s not just work, it’s her life’s work.

“I’m still that same 9-year-old girl looking for myself on screen,” she says. “I’m still that same girl. I’m still looking, so I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to get up and do it myself. It’s a big part of why I’m supposed to be walking the earth right now — just to try to do as much as I can and in every way I can. To me, that’s everything.”

Sources: NY Times, marintheatre.org, ew.com, syfy.com, centralsquaretheatre.org

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