Out of Africa, a Play is Born

Storyteller and actor Danai Gurira tries to make sense of her roots in ‘The Convert’

February 21, 2013
Nancy Moricette and JaBen Early explore reading together in “The Convert.”
Nancy Moricette and JaBen Early explore reading together in “The Convert.”

Danai Gurira takes no prisoners. Not as zombie-shredding, katana-wielding Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” and not in the plays she writes. She tackled sex slavery in “Eclipsed” and AIDS in “In the Continuum.” And in “The Convert,” playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, she takes on the violent European colonization of Africa, specifically the area that’s now Zimbabwe.

Born in the U.S., Gurira moved to Zimbabwe with her family when she was in first grade, and she stayed until the end of high school. “The Convert” is her first work (and the first part of a planned series) to deal with the history of her childhood homeland.

“I wanted to figure out how to understand Zimbabwe for myself,” she says. “Creating a story is the best way to do that, because you have to understand the people who were walking around at that time, what their struggles and their journeys were.”

So she created Jekesai (played by Nancy Moricette), a young woman living in 1895. A recent convert to Christianity, Jekesai finds herself tested when her new religion conflicts with the traditions of her culture as various factions fight to control the land where she grew up.

Gurira started researching for “The Convert” in 2008, when Zimbabwe’s political turmoil was making headlines. She visited the nation three times, paging through tattered 1890s newspapers in the National Archives of Zimbabwe, persuading archivists to let her hold the originals when their microfiche went on the blink.

Gurira, who’s written multiple plays set in Africa, says she sometimes feels like she’s fighting an uphill battle against the sensationalist media and an indifferent public.

“America is so unaware of the rest of the world, and Africa bears the brunt of that,” she says. “People wrote me letters after ‘In the Continuum,’ saying, ‘I thought Africans were just languishing around, dying of AIDS and not trying to do anything for themselves.’

“There are a lot of dire things happening in Africa, no one’s denying that,” she says. “But there’s a lot of other stuff happening, too.”

Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW; through March 10, $35-$77.50; 202-393-3939. (Gallery Place)
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