“It’s a tricky thing, Zimbabwe,” Gurira says, but she doesn’t want to say much more. From original colonizer Cecil Rhodes to current President Robert Mugabe, the politics are complicated. She dreads oversimplifying.
On this, at least, she’s almost as taciturn as Michonne, the character she plays in the splattery AMC cable hit “The Walking Dead.”
Right: Z is also for zombie killer.
Gurira is a formidable figure on “Walking Dead’s” blasted landscape, coolly slicing the heads off zombies with her samurai sword even though during a recent interview with Larry King, Gurira laughed that she’s always hated slasher tales.
As Michonne, Gurira burns with suspicion, hacks through the undead and sloshes through spilled guts, yet she insists that the show is not a mere gore-fest. Sitting in Woolly’s lobby, Gurira – 35, imposingly fit, and a swift, smart talker – toggles back to playwright mode as she outlines the literary theme.
“It was about who do you become?” Gurira says of the TV show that she has unexpectedly come to love. “And that reminded me of ‘Eclipsed,’ the idea of a war zone, like Liberia. Everything just shut down, like an apocalypse. And it was a free-for-all about what society was.”
“Eclipsed,” Gurira’s drama about the captured “wives” of an oppressive rebel leader in 2003 Liberia, premiered at Woolly three seasons ago before being staged in New York. It marked Gurira’s transition from writer-performer to dramatist.
“I said, ‘I want to be the playwright,’ ” she recalls. “Let’s see if I can do that.”
Gurira first emerged with “In the Continuum,” the two-person drama she created with co-star Nikkole Salter while they were in the graduate program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Salter played a woman in Los Angeles, Gurira played a woman in Zimbabwe; the two never met, but their stories were linked as both suffered from AIDS. In 2006, Salter and Gurira won Obies for their work.
Since then, Gurira has established herself as an unusually versatile performer. She’s done Shakespeare in Central Park, starring as Isabella in “Measure for Measure,” which she calls “One of my fondest creative memories.” The New York Times praised her “thrilling intensity” as the Catholic novice who is pressed by a wicked duke to surrender her virginity or let her brother die.
On screen in “The Visitor,” Gurira played the Senegalese girlfriend of a Syrian drummer, both of them immigrants inadvertently sharing a Manhattan apartment with the shy figure played by the Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins. Up next: Gurira has the title role in “Mother of George,” a success last month at the Sundance Film Festival. Variety praised her performance as “incandescent”; Gurira says the film — an immigrant drama set in Brooklyn — may be released this fall. (A distributor has already picked it up.)