Danai Gurira’s ‘Convert’ and the long view of Zimbabwe’s history


Writer-actor Danai Gurira wrote the play "The Convert," about religious collisions in 1895 Africa. (Rob White)

Danai Gurira from A to Z: well, mostly Z. As in Zimbabwe.

That’s where the increasingly visible, Iowa-born Gurira was raised, and it’s the subject of her new historical drama currently at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, “The Convert.” The story takes place in 1895, exploring seven African characters grappling with the rise of colonialism and Christianity in what was painfully becoming Rhodesia.

“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.)

All of this is off the point of what’s brought her to Woolly for a few days. She isn’t rewriting: In fact, the play already enjoyed an extensive “joint premiere” last year that began at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey before moving to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, then the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.

But the Woolly team is new to the play, and Gurira is here to advise. The long drama is packed with researched history and features dialogue in Shona, the Zimbabwean language that Gurira’s parents spoke to each other while using English with the kids. (Gurira regrets that.) The story deals with a young domestic servant named Jekesai — Gurira’s real middle name — who gets swept up in political and religious changes during colonization under Cecil Rhodes, the eventual namesake of Rhodesia and founder of the De Beers diamond company.

Ambitious as it is, “The Convert” is the first play of a projected trilogy about Zimbabwe. Gurira once declined an offer to write a newspaper article on the country, instead choosing “to do what I do, which is create a dramatic narrative,” she says. “And I have to do it from going way back.”

Gurira is Christian, something she was loosely raised with and fully chose as an adult. “The Convert” deals with religion head on.

“The top leaders of the Anglican churches and the Catholic churches come out of the continent,” she says. “So it’s this sort of thing where people start to make very brash statements about how Christianity came to Africa, and how Africans aren’t being themselves if they’re Christian. ”

She was born in Iowa, but the family moved to Zimbabwe when she was 4. (Her Zimbabwean parents, now back in the United States, are academics. Gurira, single, currently lives in L.A.) Gurira describes her years there as the nation’s “golden age,” ticking off statistics about literacy rates and comparative comfort that made the Ethiopian poverty of “We Are the World” jaw-droppingly alien when she was a kid.

“I grew up when everything worked,” Gurira says. “We had a fantastic health system, a fantastic educational system, jobs. We had a great economy, we were one-to-one with the U.S. dollar. That’s what I grew up in.”

Like her three older siblings, Gurira came back to the States for college, studying psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. A semester abroad in South Africa introduced her to the idea of arts and social change, and that was that. By the time she applied to graduate programs in theater, Gurira says she nervously but firmly told interviewers that she wanted to tell stories of Africa.

Repeatedly, that’s how she describes herself — not as an actor or a playwright, but as a storyteller. The identity came while she studied acting at Tisch.

“It’s just how the great Zelda Fichandler of D.C. designed the program,” she says of the retired Arena Stage founder, who mentored Gurira at school. “She said to me one time, ‘I did not create a program where my artists sit by the phone. They have to always know that they’re creators.’ The program makes you a very trained classical artist, but it also makes you someone who knows how to get up and create work from scratch.”

Based on the scale of “The Convert,” the Zimbabwe trilogy will involve a lot more writing, and Gurira even has a fourth connected play in the works. This is what can happen when you dread oversimplification.

“The conversation is far more complicated than what you see today,” Gurira declares. “And I think trekking through the entire history of Zimbabwe is something that I needed to do.”

The Convert

by Danai Gurira. Through March 10 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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