Danai Gurira: Actress and Playwright with Africa on Her Mind

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.

I want the complexity of the African to be experienced the way the complexities of the Americans are experienced.

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