Actress Danai Gurira has recently been getting a lot of well-deserved attention and critical praise for her film and television work. She was a standout in her breakthrough film role as an African immigrant in The Visitor and is currently a regular on the New Orleans-set HBO series Treme. But Gurira, author of Eclipsed and In the Continuum, has also been getting much acclaim as a playwright who has won Obie, Helen Hayes and NAACP Best New Playwright awards.
Born in Iowa, she spent her childhood and teenage years in Zimbabwe, her parents’ homeland, before returning to the States, where she received her MFA from New York University’s School of the Arts. Her latest work for the stage, The Convert, set in late 19th-century Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), deals with a young woman trapped in a forced engagement and the emotional and dramatic effects as the result from it, recently premiered at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.; it will also currently at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
We recently had an opportunity to talk with Gurira about her new play and how it came to be; how growing up in Africa (despite being America-born) influenced her view of the world; and how colonialism still has a traumatic effect on the psyche of Black people.
EBONY: Do you consider yourself a writer who also acts, an actor who also writes, or don’t you separate yourself like that because it’s all part of who you are?
GURIRA: It is all part of who I am, but if I were to really use a pretentious term, I would say that I am a storyteller. Both tracks are ways of telling a story, but they’re very connected at the same time.
EBONY: So which came first for you, acting or writing?
GURIRA: I would say the acting came first, but I grew up in Zimbabwe and was part of the Children’s Performing Arts Workshop, where we used to just create work. When I was breaking into being a creative artist, it was actually though acting and creating at the same time, creating stories while performing. From the beginning, I’ve been linked to creating stories and acting. Of course, I got my MFA in acting, but thankfully, it was a program that teaches you how to be a very rounded artist.
EBONY: Which brings up the question of why you decided to become an artist.
GURIRA: I guess it was a bug. You lose sense of time when you’re involved in something you really love; you’re no longer affected by where you have to be or watching the clock. You’re just caught up in what you do. And I think that is what happened to me right from the beginning when I was involved in that performing arts group.
Also, really finding your path, the gifts that you begin to discover. There’s nothing more thrilling than discovering your gifts. And when that happens, why walk away from it? In my senior year in an all-girls high school in Zimbabwe, a very dear friend of mine was directing us in a play, a Zimbabwean version of For Colored Girls. I got that big monologue at the end with the babies getting dropped out the window. I was reading it alone in my living room and started to play with it and find it and to go there and, all of sudden, there was that thing where you lose that sense of time and space. You’re in your zone, something comes out of you, and you have no idea where it came from. You understand that there is something inside you that is deeply connected to creating a story.
EBONY: You left the United States when you were 5 with your parents when they went back to Zimbabwe, and you didn’t return until you were 19. Do you find that your experience growing up there has given you a different perspective of the world than if you had grown up in this country?
GURIRA: If I had grown up in Grinnell, Iowa, I would be completely from Grinnell Iowa [laughs]. But my formative years were spent in Zimbabwe, so it’s by divine design that I did come back. Those formative years in forming my world perspective, my understanding of Zimbabwean people, forming my understanding of my own heritage, the post-colonial experience, the neocolonial experience, how we navigate the world as people of African descent and also living here and understanding it from that perspective, definitely enriched who I am. And I’m constantly thinking about and negotiating how to bridge the distance between the African and the American and how to connect them. That’s my sort of thing, which is why I try to bring African stories to the American stage but in ways that are accessible. I want that connection to be felt.
I want the complexity of the African to be experienced the way the complexities of the Americans are experienced. Which story is generally told? Generally, not the African story. I want to bring it! And I wouldn’t have had that desire if I hadn’t grown up around the African. How would I have had that connection?
EBONY: Getting to The Convert, it’s the first of a trilogy you’re planning that will be centered around the history and culture of Zimbabwe. Why a trilogy?
GURIRA: Well, I don’t know if it’s going to be three, but I’m certainly not going to try to be August Wilson and claim that there are going to be 10 [laughs]. I want to explore the growth and the development of the Zimbabwean identity in the 20th-century, going up to now. I do. One play cannot do it. I mean, there would be so many that it would require. As I am learning, there were so many things that were happening that I never tapped into, that I never heard about when I was growing up there. What was going on in Zimbabwe in the 1950s? What was going on in Zimbabwe in the 1930s? There were all these different experiences. Very shockingly parallel with what was going on in the United States. And of course, there the whole political aspect. There’s so much that I want to explore.
EBONY: What was the genesis of The Convert?
GURIRA: The genesis was so many things. I kind of like some of the old White guys; like playwright George Bernard Shaw. I find it very interesting how he grappled with issues and experiences and created very rich female characters as a result. Very interesting in his time period that he did that. And that is the “colonial” child in me [laughs]. I was raised in a British colony where I was fed a lot of British literature. That’s how I was educated—with very little African literature. I read African literature when I got out of Zimbabwe!
There was something about Shaw’s Pygmalion. There was something about the girl, Eliza Doolittle, in it, and people saying, “Let’s make her something else. Let’s make her more viable globally, something more proper, something more acceptable.” So they take this girl, take away her Cockney accent, teach her how to be a proper girl, and it still resonates today. The musical My Fair Lady is still done all the time.
But that is so African. That is what I grew up around—people who wanted to [ensure] their own family members were taught to speak English better. They remove all those African traits and adopt traits ones that would make them more globally viable in a world not dominated by their own culture. I witnessed this; it happens every day on the continent. And there was something that so bothered me about it that I wanted to adapt Pygmalion to the Zimbabwean perspective because it’s real and such a part of the colonial experience. It’s colonizing somebody. It’s a way of saying, “What you are isn’t quite right [laughs]. We’re going to make you better by taking that culture of yours and replacing it with another one.” That’s what they all did—the British, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch. They said, “Your culture doesn’t work. Ours is better, so we’re going to replace yours with ours.” And we’re still grappling with that in our African identity today.
EBONY: But what you’re dealing with in The Convert translates not just to the African experience, but also here in the States or anywhere today. People can identify with it everywhere.
GURIRA: It certainly does! And that’s always the goal. I can relate to what’s going on in Chekov’s plays despite the fact that it’s a late-19th-century or early- 20th-century Russian household. Why does one character sound just like my aunt? Because he’s being so culturally specific that it’s resonating universally, and you’re getting at something human at the end of the day.