Danai Gurira doesn’t need a sword to be formidable.
Take away the dreadlocks and the katana of Michonne, the fan-favorite character she plays on “The Walking Dead,” and Gurira proves brainy, articulate, passionate and palpably driven. She’s also living the lives of three different, very successful people at once — actor, playwright and international arts ambassador.
The coming spring is unusually jam-packed, even for her. There’s her major role on one of TV’s most popular series, and a gig playing Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni, in the upcoming bio-pic “All Eyez on Me.” She’s also making her Broadway debut as a playwright in March with “Eclipsed,” a drama starring Lupita Nyong’o about the lives of five women during the Liberian civil war. At the same time, her newest play, “Familiar,” is premiering Off Broadway — and it bears some narrative connections to the pilot she’s simultaneously working on for HBO. On top of all that, the actress, who turns 38 on Valentine’s Day, is co-founder, and seemingly the de facto Stateside head, of the nonprofit Almasi Collaborative Arts, a Zimbabwean American dramatic arts collaborative.
|Jeff Riedel for Variety|
It may sound like she’s all over place, but you don’t have to sit with Gurira long to discover that everything she does is propelled by a single, remarkably unifying passion — one that’s particularly resonant in an entertainment industry grappling with issues of diversity, inclusion and authenticity.
“It’s very clear to me what my drive is,” she says, sitting in a basement dressing room at Playwrights Horizons, where “Familiar” begins previews Feb. 12. “I tell African women’s stories. It doesn’t mean I don’t do other things, but that’s my thing. It’s rooted in a passion for that, and it’s rooted in a rage, because I feel that they are so under- and misrepresented. I’m trying to link these two places, and have Africa be seen by the West in a more multidimensional, complex and celebratory way.”
Her ambitions, and her head-turning flurry of activity this spring, place her squarely in the current conversation prompted by the #OscarsSoWhite outcry. For Nyong’o, the Academy Award winner who’s also part of that dialogue, Gurira’s work is a perfect fit.
“My desire to be an actress was born out of a hunger to see people like me in popular culture, and that informs the kinds of roles that I take on — ‘Eclipsed’ being one of them,” the actress says. “With this conversation about inclusion happening, I find myself in the position to be able to use what little weight I have to tell stories that otherwise would not be told. Danai is writing those stories.”
A similar conversation is happening on Broadway, which is both celebrating an unusually diverse season, and fretting over how to keep the momentum going. “The theatrical community is widening in a very thrilling way, and Danai is at the heart of it,” says Rebecca Taichman, the director of “Familiar.”
Gurira gained her international perspective early in life. Born in Iowa to parents from Southern Rhodesia (in what is today Zimbabwe), she moved with her family to Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, when she was 5. She returned to the States after high school, attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and studying graduate acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
As an adolescent in Harare, Gurira first experienced performing in works she also helped create. She summoned that same DIY impulse as a young adult embarking on an acting career. “When I started to look for pieces for auditions or for things I wanted to do in college,” she says, “I couldn’t find anything that told the story of contemporary Africa, or told the story of what I grew up around.”
|“When I started to look for pieces for auditions or for things I wanted to do in college, I couldn’t find anything that told the story of contemporary Africa, or told the story of what I grew up around.”|
Although most TV audiences met Gurira in 2012 when she joined the cast of “Walking Dead,” the New York theater industry has had its eye on her since the 2005 world premiere of “In the Continuum,” the two-woman show she wrote and performed with Nikkole Salter. With both women playing multiple characters in linked tales of a married Zimbabwean woman and a 19-year-old from South Central Los Angeles, the play became one of that season’s Off Broadway hits. The production moved from Primary Stages to a five-month commercial run at Perry Street Theater before going on to an international tour that stopped everywhere from Harare to Edinburgh to L.A.
In 2007 Gurira made her film debut in a work that dramatized the plight of illegal immigrants in America, Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor,” in which she played a Senegalese jewelry designer. In 2009 came her second play, “Eclipsed,” inspired by a newspaper article about Liberian freedom fighter Black Diamond, and influenced greatly by a research trip to that West African nation. Her 2012 outing “The Convert” reached into the past for a seven-character drama set in southern Africa in the late 19th century.
Gurira didn’t act in either of those plays. Though performing remains central to her ambitions, she expresses no desire to continue to act in her own work, preferring to allow herself the uncompromised head space of a playwright — and a screenwriter.
“I’d moved to L.A. to start working more on my writing, and really learn all the rules of how you get narratives on a screen,” she recalls. “But the first thing that happened was I got my audition for Michonne.”
Just as “Walking Dead” had begun to reach peak popularity in 2012, its producers were facing the challenge of finding an actor who could do justice to a fan-favorite comicbook character. “Danai has the intellect and the range so that it’s not just a one-note character of someone who’s good with a sword,” says “Walking Dead” executive producer Gale Anne Hurd. “And by the way, she’s damn good with that sword.”
Hurd also notes the similarities between “Walking Dead” and “Eclipsed,” in that both are portraits of lives lived in a war zone, with a particular focus on the role of women in that world. The producer saw “Eclipsed” in its Off Broadway run at the Public Theater last fall, alongside the rest of Gurira’s “Walking Dead” compatriots. Says Gurira: “They all came back and said, ‘It’s just like our show!’ ”
|Lupita Nyong’o and Pascale Armand star in Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed”; at right, Gurira as Michonne in AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”|
Of all her plays, “Familiar” looks the most like the playwright’s own life, at least on the surface. Inspired by a family gathering, the play, set in suburban Minneapolis, centers on the wedding of the eldest daughter of an emigrated Zimbabwean family.
Along with rehearsals for that and for “Eclipsed,” and periodic trips to Atlanta to film “All Eyez on Me,” Gurira also works as co-founder of Almasi, promoting American-Zimbabwean collaboration, and working to establish a creative and administrative foundation for theater in the southern African nation. Recently, the nonprofit facilitated a playwrights’ conference in Zimbabwe, and brought two Zimbabwean writer-performers to the U.S. for professional training.
“The goal is to globalize the African dramatic voice,” Gurira says. Almasi is kept alive, she adds, thanks in large part to the funds and the profile that have come her way from her gig on “Walking Dead.” The organization is now at work on bolstering its infrastructure enough to stand on its own.
Meanwhile, she’s also at work on an impending campaign to reclaim Valentine’s Day (which is also her birthday) as a focal point of advocacy and awareness for girls and women around the world. “It’s become a call I can’t ignore, to take my advocacy beyond just the narratives I tell,” she says.
Put all Gurira’s activities together, and it seems a daunting workload. “I multitask a lot,” she says with a laugh. “I know there are all these statistics about multitaskers getting the least done, but I don’t know how else to live.”