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Actress Brings African Experiences to NY Stage


“Familiar,” Danai Gurira’s play about a familial culture clash, just extended its run off-Broadway. (Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus)

“Familiar,” Danai Gurira’s play about a familial culture clash, just extended its run off-Broadway. (Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Danai Gurira calls herself a Zimerican.

She was born in Iowa, to Zimbabwean parents, and her family moved back to Harare when she was just 5 years old. She returned to the United States for college and stayed.

"I was always in a hodgepodge of culture," she recalled, "there's no other identity I know, really."

The actress is perhaps best known as Michonne, the zombie-slaying warrior in the top-rated cable TV series, The Walking Dead. When she's not killing the undead, Gurira is busy with other pursuits. She just finished playing rapper Tupac Shakur's mother in a new film, and she's racing between rehearsals and performances for two plays in New York. But she's not acting in them; she wrote them.

Stories from both sides of the Atlantic

Rebecca Taichman is directing one of those plays, an off-Broadway comedy-drama called Familiar. She admires Gurira's desire to tell African stories on American stages.

Danai Gurira, as Michonne, fights off zombies in a scene from “The Walking Dead.” (Photo courtesy of AMC)

Danai Gurira, as Michonne, fights off zombies in a scene from “The Walking Dead.” (Photo courtesy of AMC)

"You know, what drives her is so profoundly meaningful," Taichman said. "I think it must be part of what supplies the energy. It's not ego, it's not narcissism."

Familiar takes place in Minnesota, where the eldest daughter of Zimbabwean parents is getting married to a white man. The story was taken from her own observations, Gurira says.

"I was at a wedding and I was just struck by all of my family's absurdities — and my own included,” she said. “And I just knew I couldn't not write about it!"

So, she dives headfirst into the culture clash between American and African traditions.

LISTEN: Danai Gurira’s inspiration, and an excerpt from Familiar

While the upper middle-class trappings of Familiar may be familiar to American audiences, the setting of Eclipsed — Gurira's Broadway debut — is something else entirely. She recalls she was inspired to write it after reading an article in The New York Times about the civil war in Liberia and young women who fought in it.

"These were, like, 22- 23-year-old girls, women, who had, like, you know, little skimpy jeans on, little skimpy tops, really looked cool and hip and current and then, they had these big AK-47's on their backs," she said.

Years later, she went to Liberia and met with many women — former soldiers, sex slaves and peace negotiators — and based the play on their stories.

In Danai Gurira’s “Familiar,” the eldest daughter of Zimbabwean parents is getting married to a white man in Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In Danai Gurira’s “Familiar,” the eldest daughter of Zimbabwean parents is getting married to a white man in Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus)

A Broadway first

In Eclipsed, Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o plays a 15-year-old girl, captured by the rebels, who is struggling to survive an impossible situation. Nyong'o says the girl is caught between being serially raped by a commander and thinking she can find her freedom in the rebel army.

"Well, I think the girl is our way into this world, because the war has touched her, very recently,” she said. “And so she comes into this world and is trying to figure out what the rules are. And she has to make a lot of choices about how she intends to survive."

Eclipsed is making Broadway history. It is the first time a production has featured an all-black female cast, as well as being directed by a black woman and written by a black woman. It has received rave reviews.

It's been an intense few months for Gurira, with the opening of two plays, and her work on her movie and TV roles. However, she is not slowing down. She runs a non-profit, which brings Zimbabwean and American artists together, and she's working on a new play about the women's movement in Africa.

Left to right, Zainab Jah, Saycon Sengbloh, Pascale Armand, and Lupita Nyong'o in a scene from Danai Gurira's "Eclipsed," directed by Liesl Tommy. (Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Left to right, Zainab Jah, Saycon Sengbloh, Pascale Armand, and Lupita Nyong'o in a scene from Danai Gurira's "Eclipsed," directed by Liesl Tommy. (Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus)

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