DANAI Gurira may be best known as The Walking Dead’s Michonne, the sword-wielding, zombie-slaying survivor who recently sparked a romance with the show’s protagonist, Rick Grimes. This month she’s stepping away from the undead and onto Broadway—but despite her famous screen presence, she won’t be taking centre stage.
The 38-year-old actress is also a playwright—an Obie Award–winning one at that. And two of her plays, Familiar and Eclipsed, have lit up their marquees in New York City this year, with Familiar now running at Playwrights Horizons and Eclipsed opening this week on Broadway.
It’s a rare feat for any writer to have two shows playing concurrently, and even rarer for that writer to be an African-American woman.
According to a report in American Theatre from 2015, only a quarter of American plays in the last 50 years were written by women, and only 12 percent of American plays in the past three years were written by people of colour (of either gender). By any mark, Gurira is part of a minuscule club.
And then there’s her uncommon subject matter. Both Familiar and Eclipsed focus on the voices of African women. Creating authentic African roles, especially for females, has become a focus for Gurira, born in Iowa to parents who immigrated from modern-day Zimbabwe. It comes after what she says has been decades of “very, very terrible, inauthentic representations of Africans.”
“[I want] to make sure there are amazing, full, complex roles for women of African descent. That’s a huge part of my mandate, creating work for women of African descent who often don’t get handed those roles,” she says.
Eclipsed, which tells the story of women in Liberia’s Second Civil War, is getting buzz as the first Broadway production ever in which the writer, director, and actors are all women—one of whom is Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, in her Broadway debut.
Gurira says Nyong’o has been chomping at the bit to be in the play ever since she was an understudy at Yale Repertory.
“Even when things were really happening for her, she just kept telling me that [she wanted to do Eclipsed]. I wasn’t too surprised when she e-mailed me and said she really wanted us to make this happen.”
The Oscar winner plays “the Girl,” a young, intelligent child whose innocence is robbed when, after fleeing an attack on her village, she becomes the unwilling fourth wife of a Liberian war lord.Advertisement
The audience never meets Nyong’o’s captor (or, as the women call him, “C.O.” or “commanding officer”). In fact, they never meet any of the play’s men—they are invisible forces mentioned in conversation or gestured to offstage.
Liberia’s women played a large part in ending the country’s bloody conflict—their efforts are chronicled in the critically acclaimed documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
Yet Gurira says she felt they never got the recognition they deserved, especially in the West, where African conflict is often considered in terms of “statistics or the names of a few war lords.”
“We think about war, we think about men. What about these women who are on the ground, who dismantled his reign? What about Etweda Cooper? What about Etty Weah? What about Rita Wheazor? What about those women?
“What about Leymah Gbowee, who actually has a Nobel Peace Prize for her work alongside those women? What about those names? We don’t listen to those names,” she says.
Her other play, Familiar, touches on a lighter subject matter: a family wedding among Zimbabwean-American immigrants and their first-generation children.
It’s a subject matter that is personal for Gurira, who returned to her parents’ native country after Zimbabwe’s war for independence ended. She recalls her time in Zimbabwe fondly—days full of swimming, tennis, and listening to Michael Jackson.
“There are these two cultures that dwell inside of me that sometimes find no relationship with one another,” she says.
“There is that push-pull between being completely assimilated into one culture but making sure you retain a connection to the other.”
Gurira won’t be abandoning her popular role on The Walking Dead anytime soon, but she’s also starting to develop ideas for the screen as a writer, especially as a post-#OscarsSoWhite Hollywood seems to finally be seeking out more stories beyond the overwhelmingly white status quo.
“I can see what is, and that can enrage me, but I also have to think about what could be,” says Gurira.
“I put my mind to what I would like to see out there, and then I have to put myself to the task, which is what I attempt to do through the narratives I write. It’s constantly like, ‘What do I want to see?’
“I take the burden onto me so that I’m creating narratives that break the back of this issue once and for all.”
Yet Gurira is quick to add that she is not alone in this fight. “I’m standing on the shoulders of others who broke barriers, the glass ceilings.
“I’m standing on their labor so I have to add my link to the chain, so the women coming behind me can stand on mine.”