Danai Gurira: Actress and Playwright with Africa on Her Mind

Danai Gurira: Actress and Playwright with Africa on Her Mind

Sergio Mims sits down with the actress/playwright to learn more about her impressive play, The Convert

by Sergio Mims, March 03, 2012

Danai Gurira: Actress and Playwright with Africa on Her Mind

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.

Learn more about  Danai Gurira here!

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