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Danai Gurira’s quest for excellence

Giving a public talk recently, Gurira said she got into the arts industry at an early age and received overwhelming support from her parents, which helped shape her career.

“I started working with the arts at a very young age. The arts found me — it’s not often something that you’re encouraged to do at a young age,” she said during a US Public Affairs Food for Thought public talk titled “Can an African make it in Hollywood or Broadway?”

She added that she did her first play, which required her to do an extensive monologue, at the age of six.

Gurira, whose work as co-star and co-creator of the 2006 Pulitzer finalist In the Continuum, about women living with Aids in Africa and Los Angeles propelled her to stardom in the US, said she is driven by the desire to tell a story and not the shiny lights of the industry.

“There’s a zone you’ve to be able to go into as an artist. When you’re in that zone, you lose a sense of time and space. When people think of Hollywood, all they see is the glitz and glamour, but I’ve always been motivated by creativity.”

The play In the Continuum received several awards, including the 2006 John Gasner Outer Critics Award for best new American Play and the Global Tolerance Award from Friends of the United Nations, in addition to being honoured by the US Theatre Hall of Fame.

Gurira, who also won the 2007 Helen Hayes Award for Best Actress in In the Continuum, said that it was in high school at Dominican Convent where she sharpened her interest in drama.

After high school, she left Zimbabwe to go and study psychology in the US.

“I started to create pieces mainly because I was confused at why the portrayal of Africans was negative in films. I was also inspired by Over the Edge’s play Born African. At that time, I created a play about a Zimbabwean rural girl who ventures to a city,” Gurira said.

“I needed to attain a certain level of education and then learn how to break the rules. You must have a vision of your artistry. Your work ethic has to be high. You’ve to have ferocity of energy to survive the industry.”

On the state of the local film and acting industry, Gurira said there was a need to instill quality into products that are coming out of the country.

“I think it’s very tricky to say how a country should develop its industry but we should be specific as to who we are. I’m always interested in quality over quantity. The need is for excellence because once that is achieved, you’ll be less ignored globally. We must challenge our standards always.

“I would like to see films come out of Zimbabwe that are globally recognisable not because they cater to a global or Western standard but because they’re excellent. The problem is people take the little praise that they get and let their ego be fed like a little monster,” she said.

Gurira added that the fact that Zimbabwe has no real industry offered an opportunity for people to become pioneers.

“There’s no real industry in Zimbabwe so the job of everyone is to be a pioneer because we’ve to create it. You’ve to do more to build the industry. You’re going to have to be a rebel, most artists have to be rebellious; you’ve to be ready to be a pioneer.”

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