Playwright Danai Gurira doesn’t mince words.
She speaks her mind firmly. Her opinions, of which there are many, are resolute. She’s engaging, self-assured and enthusiastic when she talks about subjects close to her heart.
Gurira is at the Music Center Annex, looking chic — wearing a red tank top, black pants, stylish wedges, a beige shawl thrown over her shoulders, a black bracelet and traditional, colorful African earrings. The passion this Obie winner (In the Continuum) has for her work pours out and fills the large, chilly rehearsal hall as she begins to discuss her latest play, The Convert, set to open Thursday, at Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
Winner of the 2011 Stavis Award and Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award, The Convert takes place in 1895. The focus is on Jekesai, a girl who escapes a forced marriage arrangement and is then faced with choosing between her cultural traditions and the Christian faith and Western principles she has come to adopt.
When asked to describe the show, an explanation rolls off Gurira’s tongue with ease. The look on her face and the rapid movement of her long, expressive fingers enhance her elucidation.
“It deals with the turn of the century — being the 19th to the 20th century — in what is now Zimbabwe,” says Gurira, who was born in Grinnell, Iowa, but whose family moved back to Zimbabwe when she was five years old. Jekesai “escaped a polygamist marriage through the help of an African catechist. It’s when Rhodesia was becoming a colony. It’s when Africans realized the whites weren’t leaving, they were settling. It occurs at the cusp of the struggle for freedom that the natives attempt.”
The Douglas run is part of a premiere co-produced with McCarter Theatre Center (Princeton, NJ) and the Goodman Theatre (Chicago), which has already received accolades at the other two venues.
Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called it “an ambitious, absorbing new play”, while Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune said “Gurira has written a richly complex portrait, blistering acting throughout. Gutsy, Heartfelt”¦.”
In an interview in a McCarter publication, the play’s director Emily Mann — also the McCarter artistic director — addressed her feelings about the production and Gurira.
“What I love about this play is that there are no angels and no villains,” she said. “You are seeing why Christianity had the hold on Africa that it did, both for good and bad. Certainly, Danai, who is a devoutly religious woman, is very glad that Christianity came to Africa. And in a way, the play shows how the African church got formed. You see how the push and pull of the idea of what the traditional lifestyle, or traditional culture was, as opposed to the new Western culture, what was good and bad in one side and what was good and bad in the other.
“You can understand the tension in a young girl who didn’t want to be the tenth wife of some old man in some village — and yet, the uncles had the power to basically enslave her.” Jekesai converts to Catholicism “because there’s no such thing as polygamy in Catholicism,” offered Mann in the McCarter interview. “She was, as a woman, saved from the misogyny of her own culture. That’s where Danai is so brilliant. There is a complexity to how she looks at the situation I haven’t seen in a play, from the point of view that we’re hearing it from. We’re hearing from an African woman’s perspective, who’s also an American, whose primary language is English, tell us this story.”
Mann, who’s perhaps best known nationwide for her documentary-style scripts (Execution of Justice, Still Life, Having Our Say), also has impressive directorial credits — the McCarter/Broadway version of Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer-winning Anna in the Tropics, the premiere of Christopher Durang’s Miss Witherspoon (Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons), All Over (also Off-Broadway at the Roundabout, 2003 Obie Award for directing) the major Chekhov plays,Â A Doll House, The Glass Menagerie with Shirley Knight and more.
There is a clear collaborative effort between Mann and Gurira.
“I’m a very co-directing playwright,” explains Gurira, who is also closely involved in the casting of her shows. “I contribute a lot in the room.Â You may not get what I meant. I won’t work with a director who won’t do that. There is a lot that goes into whether it’s the right pairing. Emily Mann is a playwright and looks to playwrights and loves to feed off of you. It’s a fantastic thing to work with her. She’s very collaborative. You can chime in.Â I can identify things from an actor’s perspective. This show is culturally specific so you have to look to me sometimes. The question may be – ‘what is the significance of that’?”
“Danai has a unique perspective being both Zimbabwean and American, being a great actress and a great writer, and someone who has a real mastery of the English language and theatrical English language,” said Mann in the McCarter interview. “She can bring this to us alive, and passionate, and funny, and smart. I think it’s a rare opportunity for an audience to go and connect with this story…It’s a journey I haven’t seen on film or in the theater.”
For Gurira, the theater is a powerful place.
“Theater, it’s the very visceral experience of live storytelling,” she says. “The idea of theatricality, it’s a very real thing — things that can live on a stage that can’t live on a screen. It’s magic in the theater if you know how to latch on to it.Â I really think theater is where you can sharpen your teeth as a craftsman.Â It’s the original form. It’s not for the light of heart. You have to retain integrity and continue to deliver a high-quality product. That’s really where you separate the sheep from the goats.”
Doing It Write
Gurira has written three plays. All three — In the Continuum (co-written and performed with Nikkole Salter), Eclipse and now The Convert — have been heralded, won awards and found a home at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. With three shows under her belt at the Douglas, Gurira has the distinction of having more plays produced there than any other playwright.
She admits three for three isn’t bad.
“These plays comprise parts of a trilogy on Zimbabwe’s coming of age from a feminine perspective,” she says. Â “My protagonist is going to be a woman. Stories of African women are scantily told. I don’t know why that is. This is my calling. My deepest desire is to tell the story from the feminine perspective.”
Gurira’s part of In the Continuum dealt with HIV in black women from the perspective of a Zimbabwean woman, who had a child and contracted the disease from her husband.
Eclipsed, set in Liberia just before the end of the civil war under the regime of Charles Taylor, tells the story of five women who were routinely raped and taken captive as sex slaves of commandos.
“Some made questionable choices,” says Gurira of the women depicted in the play. “Being a woman with the liability of a vagina. Who do you become when the world is against you?”
In the last two years, Gurira has been to Zimbabwe three times doing exhaustive research. It’s hard work, she says, but it comes naturally due to her upbringing by two academics.
“Every time I go, I learn something and something gets tweaked,” she says. “I’m an academic at heart. I was brought up by a scientist and a librarian. I research. Going home is very informative. I definitely research until I find something that compels me. Then I fictionalize it.”
While she wants to write these stories about African women, Gurira adds that she also feels compelled to do so.
“Something has to eat at you creatively,” she says. “What comes out is a creative response. I feel, thus far, rage, frustration, befuddled, perhaps fascination.Â It’s all connected to ‘why is there a lack of my voice?’ I created In the Continuum with Nikkole [Salter] because necessity was a necessity of invention.Â These are amazing people. It’s an amazing society. It’s nuts. It’s awesome. Why is the story never told?”
While trying to find her own voice, Gurira kept stumbling upon the voices of others.
“I’m seeing and deeply studying Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw,” she says. “These guys are the giants of this field. They delve into their people. I’m having trouble finding that in my own voice. Why? The ideal I had is the idea that there is no difference between my story and Chekhov’s. So why shouldn’t mine come to light?Â Spiritually I feel I’m called to this. God revealed it to me. I was trying to veer toward what my dad did, but the call was free and heavy.”
Why Gurira writes has a simple explanation.
“I write from what fascinates me and what I feel is important to my humanity,” she says.Â “I was fascinated about the history of my people and how rarely it’s told and explored. Who we are today is how we are affected by what happened back then. The collision of ideologies, colonial norms, traditional practices, informs the African identity. It’s never been excavated in a way that satisfied me. It was my own exploration and my own identity and that of my people.”
When asked why she deems the stories she writes as being important and why people should care, Gurira doesn’t hesitate or blink an eye. Her face doesn’t divulge what she thinks about the question, but her explanation does.
“I don’t care if you care,” she says. “Come watch it and tell me. My job is not to be political or to be a politician…The thing I find frustrating is what gets a loud voice is stuff that is specific to the majority. There is nothing more worthy in a story told from a Caucasian perspective than an African perspective. Come see the story and connect to an African character and story.”
When she was asked by the Washington Post to write an op-ed about what’s going on in Zimbabwe, Gurira says she declined.
“I didn’t think I was qualified,” she says. “There is a lot that goes into what has happened. It’s about dramatizing the stress points. What are the inciting incidents? It’s about this moment in history.”
Although she was born in Iowa, Gurira, who recently moved to Los Angeles, refers to Zimbabwe as “home.”
“I call myself a Zamerican,” says Gurira. “I call Zimbabwe home. Living your formative years somewhere. It’s about the home you grew up in and the language your family spoke. It’s the place where people say your name right. There are tons of people like me. I sound somewhat American. I’m a bit more abrasive for a Zimbabwean woman.Â I don’t meld fully.”
Gurira, who would rather not reveal her age, is a stunningly beautiful woman with smooth, dark chocolate skin. She’s long and lean with sultry almond eyes and a short, cropped coif. Her demeanor, style and gait evoke royal lineage.
The youngest of four children (Choni, Tare and Shingai), Gurira is the offspring of parents who are both academics and both from Zimbabwe. Her mother, Josephine, was a librarian at Grinnell College in Iowa, where her father, Roger, taught chemistry.
Gurira’s own education includes an MFA in acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and an undergrad BA in psychology from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Although most of the attention she’s currently receiving is due to her writing, Gurira, who speaks four languages (French, Shona, basic Xhosa and English) and taught playwriting and acting in Liberia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, is also an actress with a varied body of work.
She has performed in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway, Measure For Measure for the Public. Her film credits include: The Visitor, Ghost Town, Restless City, My Soul To Take and 3 Backyards. Some of her television credits are Treme, Lie To Me, Life On Mars and Law & Order.
Soon she will be off to Georgia for seven months to play the highly popular role of the heroic Michonne in the third season of AMC’s TV drama, The Walking Dead, based on the comics by Robert Kirkman.
Just A Moment
Gurira remembers clearly the moments she knew she wanted to be an artist. One of those moments was just as she was finishing high school.
“We were doing a Zimbabwean adapted version of For Colored Girls,” she says. “We called it Midnight Voices. It was the lady in red drops the babies monologue. I was working on it by myself. I played with it in my living room. It’s how you bring it alive and make it specific to you. It”˜s that whole thing when you get lost in time and space. You’re in your calling, you’re in your zone, you don’t notice the clock. That was the first moment.Â I was 18.”
The next moment was when she decided to study abroad in South Africa.
“I was a junior in college in Capetown,” she says.Â I was sitting there.Â I sat in this beautiful campus and had to face the fact that psychology was not my calling.Â How do you affect change?Â It crystallized. My whole trajectory was about pursuing that desire.”
Always in motion, Gurira stays busy. If she’s not acting, she’s writing, or researching or traveling, or she’s thinking about her next move.
She already has a five- and 10-year plan.
“It’s tricky,” she says. “In 10 years I’d like my acting work to create a different chapter.Â My acting work blindsides me. It keeps life exciting. I’d like to be able to say in five years I will have been in the realm of creating a television show of the experiences that are absent from the screen. InÂ 10 years I want to be a filmmaker, writing and directing.”
Gurira got into show business with no expectations. It was a calling she says she had to answer.
“I never expected something, that’s why I’m healthy and happy,” she says. “My job is to influence it. You contribute to it, not have a relationship with it. If it’s based on creating then my job is to create, not to expect anything from it.Â Don’t say, “˜give me, give me.’ It’s what you can bring to the table. My job is to influence it. It’s not my job to sit around and complain. It’s my job to do something about it.”
The Convert, presented by Center Theatre Group. Opens April 19. Plays Tues-Fri 8 pm; Sat at 2 and 8 pm; Sun at 1 and 6:30 pm. Through May 19. Tickets: $20-$45. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 213 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.
***All The Convert production photos by T Charles Erickson