'Zimerican' Playwright Danai Gurira Brings African Stories To American Stages

Mar 12, 2016

Danai Gurira often calls herself a "Zimerican." The actress and playwright — who you may know best as Michonne, the samurai sword-wielding zombie slayer on The Walking Dead -- was born in Iowa, to Zimbabwean parents, and the family moved back to Harare when she was just five. She returned to the U.S. for college and has stayed ever since.

"I was always in a hodgepodge of culture — there's no other identity I know, really," she says.

And that makes her uniquely suited to tell stories from both sides of the Atlantic. She's now toggling between rehearsals and performances for two plays that she's written, both currently running in New York.

"What drives her is so profoundly meaningful," says Rebecca Taichman, director of Gurira's off-Broadway comedy-drama called Familiar. "I think it must be part of what supplies the energy. It's not ego, it's not narcissism; it's ... a very profound desire to tell African stories on American stages."

Familiar takes place in Minnesota, where the eldest daughter of Zimbabwean parents is getting married to a white man. Gurira says it was taken from her own observations.

"I was at a wedding and I was just struck by all of my family's absurdities — and my own included," she says. "I just knew I couldn't not write about it!"

So, she dives headfirst into the culture clash between American and African traditions While the upper middle class trappings of Familiar may be familiar to American audiences, the setting of Eclipsed — Gurira's Broadway debut — is something else entirely. She was inspired to write it after reading an article in The New York Times about the Civil War in Liberia and young women who fought in it.

"These were, like, 22-, 23-year-old girls, women, who had, like, you know, little skimpy jeans on, little skimpy tops, really looked cool and hip and current and then, they had these big AK-47s on their backs," she says.

Years later, she went to Liberia and met with many women — former soldiers, sex slaves and peace negotiators — and based the play on their stories. Academy Award winning actress Lupita Nyong'o plays a 15-year-old girl, captured by the rebels, who is struggling to survive an impossible situation. Nyong'o says the girl is caught between being serially raped by a commander and thinking she can find her freedom in the rebel army.

"I think the Girl is our way into this world," Nyong'o explains, "because the war has touched her, very recently. And so she comes into this world and is trying to figure out what the rules are, at war. And she has to make a lot of choices about how she intends to survive."

Gurira says through the girl's experiences, the audience is left with larger questions.

"What do we have left after a war?" she asks. "What is in the souls and the spirits and the psyches and the remains of those who get through it; and especially the young who haven't even been able to, you know, like formulate themselves into full adults before they were taken into something this vicious and cruel?"

Eclipsed is making Broadway history. It's the first time a production has featured an all-black female cast, a black female director and is written by a black woman. It's been an intense few months for Gurira, with two plays opening, as well as working on her movie and TV roles. (In addition to her role on The Walking Dead, she's also playing Tupac Shakur's mother in the biopic All Eyez on Me.)

"There are times when I hit a wall and I just have to be, like: 'Guys, I need the evening to myself to like, regenerate,' you know?" she says, laughing. "But it's good. It's all good."

And she's not slowing down. Gurira runs a non-profit, which brings Zimbabwean and American artists together, and she's working on a new play about the women's movement in Africa.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Danai Gurira is best known for playing zombie killer Michonne in the top-rated cable series "The Walking Dead." But lately she's busy toggling between rehearsals and performances for two new plays. But she's not acting in them; she's written them. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Danai Gurira was born in Iowa to Zimbabwean parents, and the family moved back to Harare when she was just 5. She returned to America for college and has stayed ever since. Gurira often calls herself a Zimerican.

DANAI GURIRA: I was always in a hodgepodge of culture. There's no other identity I know really.

LUNDEN: Which makes her uniquely suited to tell stories from both sides of the Atlantic. Rebecca Taichman is directing one of Gurira's two plays currently running in New York, an off-Broadway comedy drama called "Familiar."

REBECCA TAICHMAN: You know, what drives her is so profoundly meaningful. I think it must be part of what supplies the energy. It's not ego. It's not narcissism. It's, like, a very profound desire to tell African stories on American stages.

LUNDEN: "Familiar" takes place in Minnesota, where the eldest daughter of Zimbabwean parents is getting married to a white man. Gurira says it was taken from her own observations.

GURIRA: I was at a wedding, and I was just struck by all of my family's absurdities and my own included. And I just knew I couldn't not write about it.

LUNDEN: So she dives headfirst into the culture clash between American and African traditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FAMILIAR")

TAMARA TUNIE: (As Marvelous) All these years going to church pretending to be a Christian...

MYRA LUCRETIA TAYLOR: (As Auntie Anne) Tendi, Tendi, we can do our customs and do Christians also.

TUNIE: (As Marvelous) No, not this one.

LUNDEN: While the upper-middle-class trappings of "Familiar" may be familiar to American audiences, the setting of "Eclipsed," Gurira's Broadway debut, is something else entirely. She was inspired to write it after reading an article in The New York Times about the civil war in Liberia and young women who fought in it.

GURIRA: These were like 22, 23-year-old girls, women who had, like, you know, little skimpy jeans on, little skimpy tops and, like, really looked cool and hip and current, and then they had these big AK-47s on their backs.

LUNDEN: Years later, she went to Liberia and met with many women - former soldiers, sex slaves and peace negotiators - and based the play on their stories. Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o plays a 15-year-old girl captured by the rebels who is struggling to survive an impossible situation. Nyong'o says the girl is caught between being serially raped by a commander and thinking she can find her freedom in the rebel army.

LUPITA NYONG'O: Well, I think the girl is our way into this world because she's - the war has touched her very recently. And so she comes into this world and is trying to figure out what the rules are, and she has to make a lot of choices about how she intends to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ECLIPSED")

NYONG'O: (As The Girl) How you get to be with these rebels when you was attacked by those men?

SAYCON SENGBLOH: (As Helena) They find me in the bush when I run.

NYONG'O: (As The Girl) And you been with them since then?

SENGBLOH: (As Helena) Yeah.

NYONG'O: (As The Girl) No time you get away from them? Do you remember what your age when they catch you?

SENGBLOH: (As Helena) I was small-small.

NYONG'O: (As The Girl) Before you bleed.

SENGBLOH: (As Helena) Yeah.

LUNDEN: Dania Gurira says through the girls' experiences the audience is left with larger questions.

GURIRA: What do we have left after war? What is it in the souls and the spirits and the psyches and the remains of those who get through it? And especially the young who are not able to, you know, like formulate themselves into full adults before they were taken into something this vicious and cruel.

LUNDEN: "Eclipsed" is making Broadway history. It's the first time a production has featured an all-black female cast, a black female director and is written by a black woman. It's been an intense few months for Danai Gurira with two plays opening as well as working on her movie and TV roles. And she's not slowing down. Danai Gurira runs a nonprofit which brings Zimbabwean and American artists together, and she's working on a new play about the women's movement in Africa. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.