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Essay

The American Voice: This Zimerican Life

Until 1979, the Republic of Zimbabwe was the Republic of Rhodesia. The region had been forced to live under the thumb of colonization since the 1890s, when British and South African pioneers settled there, and the dissent of African nationalists seeking an end to white minority rule spawned the Zimbabwe War of Liberation (also known as the Rhodesian Bush War) in 1964. This conflict pitted three forces against one another as the Rhodesian government faced two rival nationalist organizations, ultimately leading to Zimbabwe’s independence and the election in 1980 of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first Prime Minister and current president. The brutality and political instability that spanned this 15-year war, and the corruption and economic freefall that afflicted Zimbabwe in its aftermath (present-day Zimbabwe is considered one of the most corrupt nations in the world, ranking 163rd out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s latest “Corruption Perceptions Index”), prompted a massive wave of emigration in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s: a Zimbabwean diaspora, displaced from their ancestral land, caught between a longing for home and the need to make a new one where they can.

We’re still very connected to our home but are actually, of course, Americans too.

Danai Gurira has described herself as a “Zimerican.” Among the first wave of emigrants were her parents, academics who emigrated from Rhodesia to the United States in the 1960s to work at Grinnell College in Iowa; her father was a chemistry professor, and her mother a librarian. In 1983, when Danai was five years old, the family returned to a newly liberated Zimbabwe, settling in the middle-class suburb of Harare, where Danai lived until she was 19 and returned to the US to attend Macalester College in St. Paul. She has kept one foot in each country ever since, and a look into her collection of plays to date reflects a writer who’s suspended between the two cultures, an artist in pursuit of the intersection between these aspects of her identity. “Time has brought more and more immigrants into the United States from Africa, who build homes here, and build lives here, but also bring their language and their expression of self, and they create this sort of hybrid,” she said in a 2013 PBS interview with Tavis Smiley. “It’s fascinating to me to watch my own family, to see my cousins have children here, to see the generations go on. We’re still very connected to our home but are actually, of course, Americans too. That hybrid sense of self is something that I yearn to see expressed more.” Danai is fully immersed in American culture — to the extent, even, that we see her killing zombies weekly (that most American pastime) on one of our most celebrated television shows.  But she’s also fully immersed in the cultural and historical ties she feels to Zimbabwe, where her family still owns a home she visits frequently, and where she recently started a nonprofit foundation to support theater there. Her plays marry these two: she tells stories of the African experience which, unlike like the majority of American plays about Africa, are actually from the African perspective; yet in doing so she employs Western dramaturgical models that seem to resemble the theater of Shaw and Ibsen more than African performance traditions.

Danai’s playwriting and acting debut came with In the Continuum (2005), which she co-authored and performed with Nikole Salter. Interweaving the stories of two black women from vastly different economic and cultural climates — Abigail is a middle-class wife and mother in Zimbabwe, and Nia an unmoored 19-year-old in Los Angeles — whose lives are upended when they’re diagnosed as HIV positive. Though these characters’ journeys are wildly divergent, the play draws a connection between their shared struggles.  Danai’s play Eclipsed (2009) is set in 2003 during the Liberian Civil War and tells the story of four women abducted by a rebel commander and forced to live as his “wives.” As they strive to retain dignity and self-hood against this harsh reality, this heartbreaking play reveals the struggle for these African women to live during wartime. 

The Convert (2012), set in 1895 in Salisbury, a city in Southern Africa that would later become Harare, is a trenchant, epic tale of the struggle for power between the native populations of southern Africa and the oppressive English colonial government. And though, crucially, Danai tells this story of colonization from the perspective of the colonized (all of the characters in this play are natives; we never meet the British), the dramaturgy of The Convert was inspired by the plays of George Bernard Shaw, particularly Pygmalion, which seems at first counter-intuitive, but then brilliantly appropriate. “It’s my colonial heritage!” Danai said in a 2013 interview for the Wilma Theater. “I found adopting a Shavian style from an African perspective was not only organic to my upbringing and culture, but also specific to the world of the play, the clash of worlds, the act of colonizing, and its influence on the colonized.  As for Pygmalion, it’s all about taking someone being what you consider primitive and converting them into something more along the lines of what you consider acceptable…Having seen that even in the current post-colonial Africa, the need to take the African and make them as Western influenced as possible in order to give them viability in the global realm; this made the themes of Pygmalion very immediate to me.”

Set in the upper-middle-class home of the Chinyaramwira family, in a posh suburb of Minneapolis, Familiar continues this intersection of Danai’s dual life as a Zimbabwean and an American. The portrait of a family confronting the contradictions of these two worlds on the eve of their eldest daughter’s wedding, and of the sudden difficulty that arises from the expectation for these worlds to coexist, this is an incisive and deeply felt account of the African experience in America; and yet it seems drawn genetically from the DNA of Ibsen, with traces of Kaufman and Hart. The writing itself, in other words, mirrors the rift in the Chinyaramwira household, who on one hand are a diaspora community, retaining a collective connection to Zimbabwe, the true home to which their family may eventually return. But who, on the other hand have totally assimilated, obsessing over Rachel Maddow and American football, embracing cozy Midwestern home décor, and practicing feng shui. Though the story of cultural assimilation in melting-pot America is no stranger to the stage — likely because so many of our greatest writers and artists are immigrants — Danai’s plays stand alone, unique not just in the cultural specificity and precision with which she writes, but also in her stubborn, rightful unwillingness to melt.

Adam Greenfield
Associate Artistic Director