NEW YORK — Zimbabwean actress, Danai Gurira is a rising star in theatre, the author of powerful, often harrowing plays. When she’s not doing that, you can find her chopping up zombies.
Gurira, an award-winning writer who explores African lives onstage, also plays the katana-wielding walker assassin Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead. Is the pen mightier than the sword?
“To me, it’s all storytelling,” said Gurira over tea and honey recently. “What I’m always looking for is a good story. If it’s a great story, I will submit to it.”
Both the battle-hardened TV heroine and the powerful playwright are on full-tilt this fall as The Walking Dead begins its sixth season and Gurira’s play Eclipsed, starring Lupita Nyong’o, thrills New York.
“I think Danai is really a phenomenal human being. She’s got such a strong voice and she’s so profoundly creative that she’s able to create these really distinctive stories and characters. I’m just spellbound,” said Nyong’o, who first met that playwright at Yale.
Gurira’s play, first produced in 2009 and making its New York debut this month at The Public Theatre, focuses on four women held captive by the brutal leader of a rebel faction during the Liberian civil war. It gives Gurira a chance to explore an unseen world.
“I pick up a lot of scripts where the African women on the page were underexplored and deeply underwritten. For some reason, that was acceptable. And it was unacceptable to me,” she said.
“I simply find African women amazing and interesting and complex and fascinating and multidimensional. And I find the world doesn’t seem to see that at all.”
Born in Iowa to academic parents from Zimbabwe, Gurira’s family moved back to Zimbabwe when she was five. She attended college in Minnesota and graduate school for acting at New York University.
She was a jock but also a huge reader, adoring Beloved, Roots and Anton Chekhov plays. She also felt a connection to the African-American struggle and had a signed photo of Martin Luther King Jr in her home in Harare.
There may have been a little Michonne already in her DNA. “There’s a part of me that’s known as a bit of a lioness. I’ve never been shy. I grew up as an outspoken child,” she said. “I know inside of me, if need be, there is a warrior.”
One of her first plays was In the Continuum, a play she co-wrote with a fellow graduate student in which an African-American teenager and a Zimbabwean TV personality discover that the men in their lives have infected them with HIV.
Gurira (37), went on to appear in the film The Visitor, on HBO in Treme, played Isabella in the 2011 Shakespeare in the Park production of Measure for Measure and was on Broadway in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
When The Walking Dead came calling, she laced up for battle. “I wanted to play an action chick one day,” she said. “How often do you see comic book characters come to life that have dreadlocks and a sword? That was astoundingly fascinating to me.”
Her plays have often explored African women in crisis but lately she’s started to look at the fault line of race in America. Her next play is Familiar, which will premiere in New York at Playwrights Horizons in February.
“She’s providing the African woman with voices she herself was hungry for,” said Nyong’o. “She’s telling our stories and giving us access to really, really meaty material.”
Familiar finds Gurira in a more humorous vein, with a first-generation Zimbabwean family preparing for the eldest daughter’s wedding to a white American guy.
Gurira was inspired by her own family, the film Monsoon Wedding — and Chekhov. “I could see my own family and the absurdities of my own culture in what he was writing in 19th-century Russia.”
Gurira sees signs that America — led by a president with an African last name — is starting to embrace Africa and its varied voices. She sees it in celebration after Nyong’o’s Oscar win, in the humour of the new The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, in the musical Invisible Thread and in award-winning authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and NoViolet Bulawayo.
“It’s really an exciting time,” she said. “I think the African for too long has been underrepresented, misrepresented, distorted in how they’re represented, spoken for instead of being allowed to speak for themselves.”
As for her sword-carrying Michonne, Gurira said: “I love the places that I’ve been able to go with her. I love how her own expression of self has been tempered, how she has adjusted, how her wants have shifted, how she’s embraced people, how she’s opened up her heart.”—AP