The Convert

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's THE CONVERT
by Danai Gurira
directed by Michael John Garcés
October 9, 2013November 10, 2013

Interview with Danai Gurira

By Walter Bilderback
Wilma Theater Dramaturg

WALTER BILDERBACK: For most of our audience, most American audiences, you’re best-known as “Michonne” on The Walking Dead.  How do you find the balance between doing a TV show and playwriting?  Are you able to find a balance between two careers?  

DANAI GURIRA: I’ve now been doing the show for two years and I surprised myself cause I was a little scared that I was not going to be able to get my writing done and I’ve actually got some great writing some writing that I’m very excited about done in the last several months so that’s been very exciting to me. I did a workshop in April and another reading workshop just a couple weeks ago of two different plays and so I’m actually quite excited about the work I’ve been getting done while I have simultaneously been a part of this show. Last year was a lot of transition, but this year I’m starting to find a balance.

WB:  I’ve read that you did some high school theatre in Zimbabwe but your interest was really piqued in a class on “arts and social change” that you took almost by accident in South Africa.  Is that correct?

DG: Well, it wasn’t a class, that was the name of the entire exchange program which lasted a semester.  I was actually on study abroad in South Africa for four months, for the semester.  That wasn’t actually the program I initially wanted to be a part of, but it’s the program I ended up being a part of, due to the fact that I had applied too late and so I didn’t get into the one I wanted - but the irony was that it ended up being the one where I was exposed to a lot of great African artists who had used their craftsmanship and their voices against the injustice of apartheid.  And so that was actually something that propelled me to step into really saying I’m going to make this my life work.  My major had been social psychology, I was very interested in research around  dynamics of race, gender, and such issues, nationality and things like that, and doing research in things like that but that was kind of my second love.  It did feed into what I’m doing; I’m still very much a researcher and psychological understanding is very important for what I do.  But it was about where my passion was so… It was in South Africa during that semester that I decided to dedicate myself to telling stories specifically – mainly, not entirely – from the African perspective. 

WB: And how did you decide to write a play about Zimbabwe set in the 1890s? I know you grew up in Zimbabwe, but why did you choose to write a historical play? 

DG: Because I’d never been able to explore my history and I don’t think anyone really explores African history much.  Especially in this setting, the United States. There are a lot of assumptions made about Africa but a true exploration, seeing how people lived and navigated that world at that time and all the different things, the different dynamics that were converging, I think that’s rarely explored and I’m always looking to explore what I don’t understand.  I don’t understand why something isn’t explored, so I want to explore it myself.  And also it’s my history; it’s something that was happening to my forefathers and my foremothers.  And I’ve never seen these people walk and talk in any realm and I wanted to explore that. It was just something that I think there’s so much underrepresentation and misrepresentation of: the African experience. For several centuries it's been a very hybrid experience, a mixture and a negotiation of different cultural influences and colonial impositions and several other cultures that converged on the continent that are still there today, that make it a very complex cultural hybrid. And the only way I felt that I could really start to explore Zimbabwe’s identity was to go back to when all things started to converge on that soil, in the beginning of the process, when the Brits made Zimbabwe, Rhodesia, its colony.

WB: I know that this play is influenced by Shaw, particularly Pygmalion; was that a conscious decision because of the period you were writing about?

DG: It was conscious and it was all those other reasons as well.  I think the funny thing to me, the irony, is how British Anglophone Africa is.  There’s so much British influence that I grew up with, even in the 80s and 90s in Zimbabwe, that’s still there today.  It’s an imposed type of influence and it’s actually something that kind of merges into what you are, and that’s what colonization is.  And so I found it very fascinating when I read Shaw, sometimes I really see a lot of parallels with the experiences on the ground on the continent.  In Pygmalion there’s such a classic issue between these men and between this young lady.  The parallel between Pygmalion and things that happened on the continent – even now in terms of “Be more Western to be more globally viable.”  Those are parallels that I found deeply ironic – I said to myself, there’s an African version of this story, that is inflicted upon Africa by the actions of the British and I found that very fascinating.  On the other hand, and this is the interesting irony of British colonial influence, is that I actually love Shaw, you know.  I love a lot of his plays.  So that’s the irony: the British influence personified.

WB: There’s places in the play where characters speak Shona without translation. How have previous audiences responded to that? 

DG: They love that.  They have no problem with it.  They find it interesting and flattering and demanding.  And there’s nothing that they don’t get.  There’s nothing that they don’t get.  It was very carefully parsed out, the Shona.  The Shona’s in parts in places and expressions and moments where you’ll get it.  In the beginning of the play you’re like, “what the hell is going on?”  And you should be like “what the hell is going on?” My job as a playwright is to keep five steps ahead of you.  Or at least two or three. The idea that you will catch up and it all comes clear by the end of the first scene,  The stuff that you didn’t understand in the beginning.  And as things go on, you start to actually catch on to things.  There’s never anything that’s said on that stage in Shona that isn’t somewhat explained.  It’s clear.  If it’s an exclamation, it’s clear.  If it’s a disagreement, it’s clear.  If it’s a lament, it’s clear. And I think that makes the play an interesting experience.  ‘Cause I think there is a universal human language.   And if the drama is being palpably expressed there’s nothing that people won’t ultimately understand. 

WB: You’ve frequently said that one of your goals is to present African subjectivity on stage because it isn’t onstage very often.  But you’ve also expressed complexity and range of African subjectivity, which is something that people like Chimamanda Adichie have has addressed in her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, or Binyanvanga Wainaina is his satiric essay, How to Write about Africa.  Can you talk a little bit about your views on African subjectivity and the complexity of writing about Africa?

DG: I hope that it’s very clear in my work.  That’s why I started to write: I thought I should write because I was tired of the single-dimensional stories or depictions.  I started to write because these are not the people I know of or grew up around.  I started to write because I thought it was fascinating how Chekhov put his people on the map through a love of them, but also through recognizing how flawed and complex they were.  And I actually saw a lot of parallels between that society of late 1800s Russia and the societies I grew up in, ironically.  There were so many things that were lacking in the expression of the African story and voice that I felt it was something close to a crime.  And I was tired of seeing the depictions that were so single-dimensional and were really catering to, bizarrely, always a Western protagonist being at the core of a story that’s supposedly about Africans.  You know, the lovely exotic backdrop.  It’s poisonous to the African because it tells us that our stories don’t have the right to be told, but it’s also poisonous to the Westerner, because it tells them that their stories are the stories that must be told before anybody else’s.  And so, in both regards it’s very dangerous.  It’s perpetuating an identity of inferiority and it’s perpetuating an identity of superiority.  And both of those things are very dangerous.  So I love that I’m able to do plays in the West that are very much from the African subjective and complex voice, and that a Western audience sits and absorbs that story and it goes with people into their consciousness.   I think that is necessary and it’s normal to do, actually, in the West.  I reject the idea that in order for a story to be marketable or feasible, it needs to come from the Western protagonist’s perspective.  And I write against that completely by writing African protagonists and putting them on the stage across the United States. 

WB: There seems to have been recently, I’m don’t know if it’s a flowering of African literature or if it’s just that Western publishers and audiences are have decided that they’re willing to pay attention to it, but do you have any recommendations for other things you think should be on an American’s reading list of African literature or drama?

DG: What I do think should be on – well, I think there’s attention paid, there’s certain folk who are clearly being heard and seen, like NoViolet Bulawayo, whose novel We Need New Names is out now and has gotten great Western attention, and it’s very much from the Zimbabwean girl’s perspective.  But I think that the next step is actually the idea of putting the African on the screen from this perspective, from the perspective we’re starting to see in literature, from the perspective we’ve seen in a few plays.  And I think that that the next battle, the next big battle, is really giving Africans’ subjective voices on both the big and the little screens. As an actor and as a writer who talks to possible collaborators on film and TV projects, I can tell you it is a massive battle, to get that concept of telling the African story from the Western realm on screen and having that be considered something palatable and marketable.  That’s the next step.  There’s tons of writers, there’s tons of stories, that’s not the problem.  I think the problem is that there’s a mentality still in that realm that very strongly prevents it. 

I’m the lead of a film that’s coming out in a few weeks, Mother of George.  It’s about an African woman in Brooklyn.  But, yeah, I’ll tell you, they struggled very hard and long to get funding for that, and ultimately a lot of the funding came from the Ford Foundation.  They didn’t have a traditional funder.  So, yeah, I witnessed that struggle, that the filmmaker and the screenwriter went through and it’s real.  But the fact that they managed what they managed is hopeful. 

WB: You’ve actually started a theatre in Zimbabwe, right?  Almasi?

DG: Well, it’s not a theatre as yet.  The ultimate vision is for it to be something along the lines of the Market Theatre of Johannesburg, or US theaters like ART or the Old Globe that are attached to training programs, and have a community presence.  That is the ultimate vision.  Right now we’re starting off very small.  But the idea of the organization is that it’s a collaboration between American dramatic artists and dramatic artist institutions and Zimbabwean dramatic artists.  Right now we have my cofounder in the States being mentored by Emily Mann, watching how the McCarter functions, since she’s the one who operates the organization on the ground.  And soon we’ll have Nikkole Salter, who’s my co-creator of The Continuum, go to Zimbabwe and teach the first training intensive there this month. And we had a play reading series which was the first of its kind in the country.  And we’ve had a few productions.  So it’s that type of interchange that is the beginning of me trying to transfer skills and abilities and structures from here to Zimbabwe.  And there’s a ton of talent and a ton of very committed people who are on the ground.  But I always lament at how much more structural foundation and operation systems are needed; systems  that actually facilitate the talent.  So that’s what Almasi (almasiarts.org) is an attempt to do, and ultimately that is our goal, to create a theatre that operates at that level.  And that feeds the community in many different ways.

WB: This is a play set in Zimbabwe, more than a century ago - what do you think particularly resonates in this play for white and black American audiences who are seeing it?

DG: You know, that’s such a sweeping question. I can’t get into the hearts and minds of everybody.  Honestly I think it has so much to do with something more than race or nationality, it has to do with humanity.  I can connect to Chekhov, I can connect to Shaw, I can connect to August Wilson because there’s something – there’s a human story being told there that is a universal story, even though great stories have to be very grounded in specificity - and that’s what allows them to have human resonance beyond any specific culture.  Ultimately, that’s what I would hope is received and it might land differently on different people based on certain demographics.  But I think just getting compelled by a story about this young girl and all of the very very palpably imposed cultural structures, from race to gender to religion, that are closing in on her I – you know, I hope the people find some connection to something happening on the stage.  But I can never predict what that will be.  And I love that I can’t predict that, it forces my argument that it’s about telling a human story very well, and then the rest takes care of itself. 

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