Danai Gurira Artist Interview
Warning: This interview contains spoilers about the plot and content of Familiar.
Tim Sanford: Heretofore, all of your plays have been set in Africa: In the Continuum which you wrote with Nikkole Salter, Eclipsed which people are seeing on Broadway now, and The Convert which had lots of regional productions. Familiar is your first play set in America. You’ve said you felt compelled to write this story. Talk about that.
Danai Gurira: My artistic mandate up to that point had always been: “I’m not going to talk about things close to myself. I want to go into vital issues about people who you never hear or see.” But when I went to a wedding of a cousin of mine, her daughter was getting married, and of course they’re African, she’s fully Zimbabwean but she grew up completely in the Midwest, and has never been to Zimbabwe, and she was marrying a lovely Caucasian male who had been to Africa, ironically. And it was just a very interesting event. And I watched my own family’s dynamics, my own dynamics amongst my kin, and the dynamics of how these cultures had merged, and interacted, and clashed. And I just found the absurdity of our familial dynamics... I was laughing at myself, I was laughing at us as a whole; it was kind of this beautiful mess. It was kind of that “My people, my people” moment where I realized, “Oh my God, I just have to put this on the page.”
So the story of the bride that you just described is an interesting kind of mirror of your own, because she was born in Zimbabwe and moved to the Midwest and you were born in the Midwest and moved with your parents to Zimbabwe when you were a child, right?
Yeah, but when I was creating Tendi I wasn’t heavily connecting her to me. But the idea of being the child of Zimbabweans and having a Zimbabwean name but not speaking like them, and not sounding Zimbabwean yourself, I totally relate to that. But I also think it felt like a significant thing to hit on culturally, just as much as my other plays because it is touching on the dynamic of “The New American” that I feel isn’t often explored. Sometimes it’s very comedically explored, but I hadn’t really seen it explored from the African perspective in a satisfying way. And I think it’s beautifully explored sometimes in literature... Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and NoViolet Bulawayo both have astounding novels that touch in on this very deeply. But there was something very specific about what I was seeing that I just felt I’d never seen, so I started to create this story from that perspective. I feel like there’s also an ignorance around Africans in America. Even though our President is the result of that. I just feel like people don’t know how educated Africans in America are; they are the most educated immigrant group. Even more educated, according to proportion, than white America. And most people would be surprised where they’ve settled, throughout the country.
Why did your parents move back? Was it career, or was it personal?
It was a thing that was happening a lot. I grew up around a lot of families in Zimbabwe that were similar to my own, people who had been born in the West, their parents had moved there in the ’60s, ’70s for higher education, and had developed careers there. But of course they yearned for their home. They yearned for their home to be free. And once that actually came to pass and there was peace and stability, a lot of people packed up and moved back home: doctors, lawyers, and, like my father, professors. And I grew up around a lot of kids like that, who’d been born like me in the US, who’d been born in England, or Australia, or Canada. I grew up around a lot of kids whose parents were, you know, very highly educated professionals, and who had come back in the early ’80s to invest in the new country.
Well you were quite young, right?
I was five when we moved back in late ’83.
And when did you return to the States?
Yeah. I came back for college, as did all my siblings before me.
I went to Macalester, for undergrad. NYU for grad school.
Oh, Macalester in Minnesota! What drew you there?
Well my dad was a professor at Grinnell, so small midwestern liberal colleges were something we were very connected to. And he took a sabbatical at University of Minnesota, so the connection to Minnesota was there too. Also, Macalester was in a theater town.
Minneapolis/St. Paul has a lot of theater.
Did you know you wanted to major in theater?
I was really into theater. And I opted for the theater first year course, but then when I started to really look into the major I was like, “I don’t know about this...” I was not really into the major. There were things about it... I was like, “If I did the major I would just want to do this and this. But you got to do all that.” (Laughs.) You know? I was not really interested in, like, how to build a set, which is sad. I should have been.
But I wasn’t. So my other passion was sociological psychology: the idea of researching and looking into human dynamics on a large sociological scale. How do systems like apartheid or Jim Crow — systems of racism and oppression — occur societally, you know? And the degree to which research such as showing the psychological effects of segregation on the minds of children affected public policy, as it did in Brown v. the Board of Education. So I ended up being a social psychology major.
What kind of theater were you doing in Zimbabwe?
A lot. I was part of a group called Chipawo Performing Arts Workshop when I was like 13 to 15, and that involved a lot of creating your own work, and learning stuff that we would never learn otherwise. I was in a very Anglicized educational system, so my extracurricular interests allowed me to learn traditional dance and music and things like that. It was getting a little endangered back then because we were being bombarded with Western music, and were only listening to Western music really. But then only in Chipawo I learn how to dance like my forefathers and foremothers. And we were also creating pieces. So the idea of creating a piece of work and performing it, and having it infused with the social issues was something I was doing in Chipawo. And then I moved on to Repteens, which is a program of the Reps theater, the one year-long theater in Zimbabwe that has plays going on all the time. It’s largely run by the white Zimbabwean population and its output reflects that, though it’s adjusting, slowly. Repteens is a program where teenagers come together over the week, and put on plays.
Were you creating original work?
Mainly we were touching in on already created products. And Reps Theatre was very westernized. It actually didn’t ever really do any African works. It was always doing works from the West. And then the other thing I was doing was in my high school theater club. It was an all-girls school. We would sometimes do plays with an all-boys brother school. Sometimes we would do plays with them or with another all-boys school. But I also played Laertes in an all-girls Hamlet. We did for colored girls. We were actually doing global theater, a lot of classical work.
Was it a private school?
It was a Catholic school, run by German nuns. It was the first kind of high school of its type in the country.
You went to NYU in their acting program, right? Were you thinking about yourself as a writer at all yet?
I was thinking of myself as someone who would create works at some point. I started to create works in college, but I felt like... You know, it’s interesting. Why did I choose an acting program? I just felt like that was going to be my way in, my outlet, my way into everything really, I guess. I was really getting absorbed in the academic world. There are several programs that are interested in people of color who are interested in getting their PhDs in social sciences. So I was getting kind of sucked in to that, and invited to all these research programs, and then it hit me: “This is not what I want to do!” It was pretty clear I was about to end up in a PhD program if I wasn’t careful.
It really hit me that it wasn’t what I loved and I had to do what I loved. I was in South Africa on a study trip at the time. And it hit me that I wanted to try to tell African women’s stories, which made some of my professors at Macalester very happy. And so I did go back and enrolled in grad school at NYU. I wanted to learn all the rules around this craft so I could break them as I tend to say. I knew I had ability, but I knew I didn’t have a craft.
There’s an aspect of In the Continuum… Which I guess was sort of your final thesis project?
The amazing thing about Zelda Fichhandler when she set up the conservatory at BYU, she created something called Freeplay, where you’re allowed to create your own work in your third year. So it’s not really a thesis; they’re not making you write anything. You can do whatever you want during Freeplay. You could create, write, direct, bring other people in, whatever we wanted to do. And that’s a beautiful thing that Ms. Fichhandler created, so that’s when Nikkole and I created In the Continuum.
There’s an aspect of your interest in In the Continuum. You’ve made it very personal and powerful, but the stories you’re telling weave together the social fabric of AIDS in Africa and in America.
I think that’s a goal in all my plays honestly, to get into the personal, but to have a macro ramification, or to look at things that people can look at as a statistic or stereotype in one way, and to make them have to spend time with a person that they may even end up relating to a little in some strange, tiny way, to see the complexity of something they might have thought of as something simply statistical and “over there somewhere.”
In the Continuum was a big part of your life for a while because it was done...
’Cause I had to do it!
I had to get up and perform it.
It was done originally and then it was remounted, right? I remember Robert (O’Hara, who directed it) told me that one of the early productions had to be done on the set of something else? Is that right?
Oh that’s true. At Primary Stages when they were on East 59th. Another play was going on most of the week. And we would go on three or four times a week. There was a guillotine onstage.
Oh my God!
So we stood on either side of the guillotine. It was hilarious.
When we were at a certain moment of the play we just used it. We just used it as the way that these two women are not seeing each other, but they’re right in front of each other.
It consumed a lot of your time, post graduation, right?
Yeah, we were being asked to do it in all types of odd places and different types of organizations were having us come and just perform it randomly. And then, you know, then we did it in the Bronx in this little place called the Mud/Bone Collective run by this lovely guy, Michael Wiggins, and that’s where Primary Stages saw it and we brought on Robert as our director. Then we went into a really strong round of dramaturgical rewrites, created a whole other character. So we did Primary Stages then moved it Off-Broadway to the Perry Street Theatre.
That’s where I saw it.
And then it started to go everywhere... We toured it to Zimbabwe, South Africa, we were at the Market Theater, and we were at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. We did six weeks at the Market Theater. Then we came back to the States and then we did it regionally, from Yale to CTG to the Goodman. It was crazy. We did a ton of theaters here in the US. Then we went back to South Africa, and then we were like, “No more. We can’t do this anymore. We got to hand it over. We created this also for others to do. It doesn’t need us to tell the story.”
When I saw In the Continuum, I was so struck by the power of the premise and of your performances, but the writing was also so strong. It was beautifully and powerfully played, and a really great story, and I just wondered, you got a lot of attention for this phenomenon, but thereafter, did people want you as an actor? Did they want you as a writer? Or were you following your own muse? What led you to write Eclipsed?
Oh no, I’d wanted to write Eclipsed before I wanted to write In the Continuum. I had been exposed to the story of women in Liberia in 2003. A professor of mine who unfortunately passed away this past year, Ken Washington, showed me a New York Times article, front page, of Black Diamond who was becoming very popular as the rebel’s army leader. And she was this chick, 23, kind of cool dress, and these little jeans, and this little top, and her core of other women looking really cool as well with their AK-47s. And I’d grown up in a very pristine Anglicized Africa, so I was like, “What is that?” I didn’t know what that was, and I was like, “That’s amazing, I’ve got to research that story one day.” And that was in 2003. In the Continuum started to meld together around 2004.
So it was a matter of finally getting to it.
It was a matter of getting to it. And when I was asked what the next thing I wanted to do was, it was always that. It was that story about these women in war.
But you were acting all over the place too.
Yeah, I mean, you do the whole thing. You get an acting agent, you go audition. We didn’t become some sort of rock stars after In the Continuum. I think maybe people were like, “We don’t know what to do with them.” But we went our own ways in terms of auditioning and doing other things.
When you started writing Eclipsed though, and you weren’t thinking of it like, “Where’s my part?” Were you?
No, actually I was thinking of it, “Is there anyone else that could do this? Do I have to do this?” That’s what I was thinking.
So your desire to write didn’t come out of performing in In the Continuum at all?
No, my desire to write came out of the fact there was a dearth of stories that I felt were important, that I wanted to see told.
And after In the Continuum you’ve never been tempted to write a play that you would perform in?
No, no. No. I mean, a huge part of my artistic mandate is to create work for others. To create work for women of African descent. To allow them to really show their chops and have something really juicy to chew on, and have a journey to take. That’s why I wrote Eclipsed really.
You were saying Eclipsed was foreign territory for you, so different from your own personal experience. Like real bloody, violent, armed struggle.
And I’d just never seen this story told. And why is that? Why don’t I know the stories of African women in war? Why don’t I know what the different responses and tactics and stratagems women have had to use to survive a war zone? To navigate a war zone?” And why doesn’t... I’m sure most people around me don’t know those stories either, so I’d like to try to tell it. Or tell one story around it, you know? So that was more the drive.
So your next play is The Convert. The Convert is a historical play, set in your home...
And it’s very much about how colonialism brought Christianity with it. There’s a tension in the play between the ways colonialism co-opts Christianity and the way the faith the lead character practices challenges that colonialism.
Yes, I ultimately don’t think that The Convert is a play about how Christianity came with colonization. I would say the core of The Convert is about betrayal. And the role Christianity plays in this colonial dynamic is complex. For example, in the specifics of the story, this girl escaped an arranged marriage through Christianity.
And that’s something that sort of happened with my own great -aunt. Her husband died, and her father arranged a marriage to a relative so she ran off and became a nun. And my parents both came here through the church. My father came here on a Quaker scholarship, my mother came here on a Methodist scholarship, Wangari Maathai who has unfortunately passed, who was our first Nobel Peace Prize winner who was an African woman, came here on a Catholic scholarship. You know what I mean? It’s complex! It’s not like, “Oh Africans just got jacked by Christianity.” You can’t say that! You really can’t. There were choices that women were able to make through choosing the faith that they couldn’t make in traditional culture. It was actually a faith that said, “You don’t have to marry.” Which was radical in most cultures, honestly. And having gone to an all-girls Catholic high school myself, I witnessed female authority. We only had women in charge. And so I didn’t grow up around the idea that Christianity came with any type of restraint in your abilities. But there are ways that Christianity and the cultural components of your life can clash. That’s in The Convert. The idea that, “Oh, now if I’m practicing this faith, the idea of going to do a ceremony around the spirit of my dead relative” becomes something in conflict.
Jekesai is willing to make that sacrifice. In a way she represents a pure Christianity. She can’t understand the compromised—
Actions, the contradictions of the church leaders, who weren’t enacting what they were espousing.
And she’s the one who is betrayed... Her story is a Christ-like story, because she is betrayed.
The difference is, ritualistically, she doesn’t get murdered, she murders.
But it’s a kind of blood ritual in a way.
Right, exactly. Exactly. Exactly.
There is a parallel between the conflict over the burial ritual in The Convert and the conflict in Familiar.
Over the roora ceremony.
Marvelous doesn’t want to do it.
It’s a constant struggle for the African. I learnt this while researching The Convert. Colonization was an assault that stopped the natural progression of the African into their own modernization and imposed another order. So you have to adapt to this other order but what happens when you step out onto the other side of colonization? You will always have been a colonized people. You hold on to the things that were there before you were colonized, often very old traditions that a lot of the world would say, “Why are you still doing that?” Because that’s what we had before we were assaulted. And so that’s what we consider our identity.
There are different points of view about the roora in the play.
Like Maggie participates in it, but she thinks it could evolve.
Where Annie wants it by the book, exactly how it always was...
Yeah, and that’s real.
And Marvelous wants no part of it.
That’s real. There are different types of Zimbabweans: some serious traditionalists who follow the exact order that was put together by our ancestors. And then there are the ones who are like, “Let’s just do the general part of it and say we did it.” And for the family wedding I was speaking of, they actually didn’t do it. They didn’t do it at all.
You don’t really position the conflict in Familiar about roora in religious terms, but Christianity does provide an important backdrop to the play, even if it doesn’t drive the plot substantially. Marvelous self-identifies as Christian but her rejection of roora is more cultural than religious. Still, it’s worth noting that the faith she practices is more formal and establishment and Western in orientation, mildly reminiscent of the Anglican version of Christianity in The Convert. On the other hand, Tendi’s and Chris’s faith is more evangelical and charismatic, and interestingly, more open to the spirit and traditions of Zimbabwe.
I do think what happens with Tendi is important. She runs up against her faith in terms of who she is. There’s something very blatant in the way she rebels against her choices as a Christian in the scene with Chris and he brings her back around. It represents the concept of Grace in a subtle way and that’s something that runs through the play. Most of the people in the play get to a place of grace, and that is a Christian theme.
When American Theatre Magazine published The Convert, they included an interview between us where I pointed out that the lead character Jekesai’s name is your middle name. And you talked eloquently about how the personal connection you look for has little to do with autobiography, but is more a project of empathy and imagination. You said something like, “I tried to think about what it would be like if I was there. And the choices that were made then.” And thinking about your own life, that you came to America and you have privileges that come with it, is very much a theme of Familiar as well. The crux of the plot discovery, that Tendi is really an African by birth, begs the larger question, “There but for the Grace of God go I.” Then you go home and you realize the differences between the lives that would have been lived and the life lived.
Annie brings that in the room, I hope. The differences between these sisters’ experiences.
And I think it spreads to audiences as well because the immigrant story at its heart is a universal story so many Americans can share. I think the title of the play tips your hand of how important this process of identification is to you.
Yeah, it is about eliminating the “other.” That’s always my goal, being from both places, being from two cultures, cultures seemingly very foreign to each other, but both of which live inside of me very significantly. So to me they’re not foreign to each other. But then at times I see how they seem foreign to others, to Americans, and that can leave me feeling a little flummoxed. So the idea of merging them is always my goal. I hope it’s not a Sisyphean quest, but I’m constantly trying to bring these two cultures together, to help them see each other, and to eliminate the concept of the “other” which is constantly where the African is placed.
One of the ways you do it, I think, is through the characters of Chris and Brad. They are the “other” for the characters, but they’re also “us” for most of the audience. It’s very effective, but also worth noting, the first time you’ve included white characters in your plays. You told me in The Convert interview that you had tried to write a white colonialist in that play, but cut him.
Oh God, I was writing him so badly! I was like, “This is not working.”
But Brad and Chris are so well done, and such welcome presences in the play. So funny. And that’s something we haven’t talked about at all. The play has very serious themes, but it’s also set up as a comedy so skillfully. Could you just talk a little bit about your guiding principles as you set about to create this world and shape the play?
Yeah, I wanted to play with the form. I like playing with different forms. Like In the Continuum had its form, but for The Convert, I was kind of looking at things in a kind of Shavian, Ibsen sense.Then for this play I wanted to play with the form of the American family drama, possibly with a bit of dramedy in it. I wanted the house to look like this pretty significantly American home where you feel, “Oh that’s a familiar set. That looks like what I’m used to. I’m used to these dramas. These family dramas in American living rooms. Yeah.” But then bringing in a whole other type of America through the sort of characters you encounter in that living room. So there was definitely a goal.
Did you have plays you revisited in thinking about it?
Sure, the one with three sisters, set in the South, and one of them has an affair with a black guy?
Crimes of the Heart?
Yes! And August: Osage County. August Wilson because — it’s a spiritual thing for me to read August Wilson. It reminds me of what I’m trying to do at my core. And then what started to creep on me was Chekhov.
Did you know when you started the play would have this climactic switcheroo? Where you were headed?
No. It came to me as I wrote. It started off being about roora, but then it went to the heart of what this is really about, which is about familial wounds and healing. And how far a family can go without dealing with their wounds, and without forgiving each other, and by changing the truth. (Laughs.) You know? Functioning through deceit! You can do it for a whole generation, you know?
Or more! And that’s... Those are things I encountered in my own family in various ways, and there are things that initially I didn’t know I was going to get to that I think we finally have really gotten to in this rendition. I think we really managed to get there. It has taken two productions, for me to actually get to the crux of this play. Which I’ve never experienced before.
In the first production, it was a portrait of Mugabe that Donald and Marvelous kept putting up and taking down. Now it’s a map of Zimbabwe.
Yeah, because it’s just not about him at all. It was really more about the idea of these characters. What would propel them towards home? And saying, “This is where we’re from.” I think there’s a whole other significance to putting a man on the wall looking at a family the whole time versus putting up a map that says, “That’s our home. I grew up there, and you grew up there.” You know? It was more about remembering your homeland.
Just a final question about the end. Donald announces he wants to go back. He has that yearning that you described, that a lot of Zimbabweans have. And Marvelous is categorical: “I can’t go back.” It feels like they are at an impasse. Then you have that beautiful moment where Nyasha plays the mbira and Donald starts dancing. Then Marvelous starts dancing. It’s such a beautiful way to dramatize the connection they have that rises about words. You didn’t have this moment in the Yale production. How did you discover this moment here? Was it in rehearsal?
The moment was not discovered in rehearsal. It was always on the page, since the beginning. In our first rehearsal process we felt that we didn't quite earn it, there were components of the script I needed to strengthen, the core relationship, Donald's journey, and Marvelous'. That further development on the page allowed that moment to be earned. It allowed that moment to feel right and organic