Interview with Playwright Danai Gurira

By John M. Baker

John M. Baker : You sometimes describe yourself as “Zimerican.” How does having been born in Iowa and raised in Zimbabwe inform your work as an artist?

Danai Gurira :
I think it is a definite thread in my artistic pursuit. I feel I am part of both worlds and want to see them intersect. I want to bring the subjective African voice to the American audience. I grew up in Zim with all of us watching American movies, listening to American music, having their voice heard loud and clear way across the skies, but vice versa? Not so much. And why? Africans are equally as complex, interesting, and diverse, with fascinating stories and voices. So, bringing that voice to the American realm as much as possible is a driving force behind my artistic quest.

John M. Baker : Audiences will likely recognize you as Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead. In a recent interview with Vulture Magazine, you described The Walking Dead as a bit like a “war zone.” Both The Convert and Eclipsed are also set in war zones and feature strong, tough women. Why do you find yourself drawn to writing or playing strong female characters who find themselves in tumultuous situations?

Danai Gurira : It seems that way when you put it like that! I am attracted to that experience. I feel it is grossly untold. The demoiselle in distress seems to be the general modus operandi for female representation too often. I am not on a war path, however; it just seems to end up that way. I do like to see women highlighted showing their strengths and their weaknesses, their struggles, their abilities to overcome, to make unpopular choices, to see the best and worst of themselves. When you think about it, it is really what male lead characters get without us even thinking about it, and the adjective “strong” is never even applied. So, I guess I am just attracted to female lead characters. “Sheroes,” I guess.

John M. Baker : The Convert is the story of colonialism from the perspective of the colonized. So, it’s interesting that a white, nineteenth-century Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, was a major inspiration for the play. Why did
Pygmalion inspire you?

Danai Gurira : It’s my colonial heritage! When I went to grad school, my goal was always to give the black voice subjectivity, but I knew I had to learn from my, as I affectionately call them, “old dead white guys” and learn their rules, then figure out how to break them. Along the way, there were many of them that I came to enjoy, and of course you then understand why their work has stood the test of time. The irony of Shaw’s influence is, as I mentioned in jest earlier, the colonial influences his people have on mine. I was raised in an African/British influenced environment, from my British system education to my people’s insatiable affinity for tea. I found adopting a Shavian style from an African perspective was not only organic to my upbringing and culture, but also specific to the world of the play, the clash of worlds, the act of colonizing, and its influence on the colonized. As for Pygmalion, it’s all about taking someone being what you consider primitive and converting them into something more along the lines of what you consider acceptable. I was attracted to that, having seen that even in the current post-colonial Africa, the need to take the African and make them as Western influenced as possible in order to give them viability in the global realm; this made the themes of Pygmalion very immediate to me also.

John M. Baker : Is The Convert more personal than your other plays because it’s set in Zimbabwe, your home country?

Danai Gurira :
It is an intersection of my faith (I am a Spiritual Christian), my heritage, and my gender in a way that no other play has done so far. It engages a conversation I feel I wanted to engage. It does have some familiar stories vaguely intertwined. My great aunt fled a forced marriage, was taken in by the Catholics and became a Sister, and gained a great reputation as an educator. My mother’s mother decided to join the Methodist Missionaries, where she met my grandfather, a Methodist Pastor and she became a grade school teacher; she was a daughter of a prominent chief who had several wives, he allowed her to go to the Missionaries however, and while retaining his chieftainship (and his wives) became a practicing Methodist! Gotta love that!

John M. Baker is the Artistic Producing Associate at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Associate Producer at NYC-based Partial Comfort Productions. He is the former Literary Manager at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. As a dramaturg, John has developed new work at Boise Contemporary Theatre, Clubbed Thumb, Juilliard, The Kennedy Center, The Lark, Ma-Yi, Page 73, Partial Comfort, PlayPenn, Seattle Rep, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, South Coast Rep, and Woolly Mammoth, among others. He has spent seven summers as a dramaturg at The O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and frequently collaborates with Samuel D. Hunter (A Bright New Boise, The Whale). John has taught at Fordham University, Marymount Manhattan College, and Rutgers University, and has worked as a guest artist at in the graduate playwriting programs at NYU Tisch Asia, The University of Texas at Austin, and The University of Iowa. He holds a BA from Boston University and a MFA from The University of Iowa.

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