McCarter Theatre Blog

Danai Gurira: Liberian Journals, Part III

Posted by Adam Immerwahr on March 4th, 2008

Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira in In the Continuum, photo by Rubin Coudyzer

Playwright Danai Gurira has been developing her newest play, “Eclipsed” at McCarter. She and Nikkole Salter read excerpts from the play in last year’s “IN-Festival,” and the play will receive its first reading at McCarter on March 6, 2007. In researching the play, which explores the effects of war on Liberian women, Danai traveled to Liberia through a TCG New Generations grant, which she applied for with McCarter Theatre. She came back with a journal of her experiences, which I will be sharing excerpts from on the blog. Part I is here. Part II is here. Below is Part III:

My workshops commenced after my days of interviews. They went exceedingly well, though we got to a bumpy start. They were a little loose on the concept of classroom decorum: staying in the room, not talking on the phone in the room, etc. So we ironed that out by the end of the first day—I became very free with them—yelling when I felt the need, they responded positively, thankfully. They became aware, I think, that I was trying to make them the best they could be and impart a great deal in a very small window of time and that I was not going to tolerate anything less than their full effort. Teaching proved challenging in certain areas; I tried to expose them to scripts and how the structure of one can work, it was tricky, they had never read full scripts before, nor prepared a piece from a script, Juli later told me many of them had only learned to read recently, they were largely young adults she had rescued from dire situations and brought to the city and sent to school. Slowly but surely we gained some ground, I worked them pretty hard, and often forgot to give breaks. They loved certain corrections I made to their performance style like the issue of telegraphing, a term they could not get enough of. It was so revelatory for them to realize what they had been doing wasn’t the way to perform at their best. We ended on wonderful terms, with all of them asking for my return. Juli, in typical phenomenal woman fashion, made a few phone calls and set up a press event for the day of my departure—to present the participants with a workshop certificate and let the press know of the work we were trying to do. We wanted to include the US embassy’s participation in the press so that they would feel compelled to bring me back when Juli and I proposed it later this coming year so that I could do more intensive training. Amazingly, everything fell into place just as Juli described it and the next day I was handing out certificates and making speeches while smiling for the Liberian press. My friend Fred in South Africa forwarded me a Liberian newspaper snippet quoting me discussing my project. Juli is something else.

I left that day with a mixture of relief that I had accomplished the task and distress that perhaps there was more to do, more people to meet, deeper connections to be made. I had continued to interview women, both casually and formally throughout my time and had tons of footage. I knew after this experience I had a new found confidence: to step onto any part of the continent - on my own - connect with members of my extended African family and pursue projects of importance to me. This was the vision I had for myself many years ago when I resolved to devote my creative energies to African female stories and I was doing exactly what I had envisioned. I knew the story of this play was now in my bosom; that the profound generosity of spirit I had experienced when these many women opened their hearts to me was going to transform into a dramatic narrative; it was simply up to me to now buckle down and allow it to reveal itself.

As Mohammed drove me to the airport I let my eyes drink up every detail of the country I had grown familiar with. I remember my friend Fred telling me, “I find I am comfortable in any part of Africa I am in,” when I asked him how he found Liberia. I felt similar that day. Liberia felt like a home, one of the few I possess so far. All the eyesores and discomfort I felt when I first arrived had evaporated, now I was apprehensive about leaving, keen to imprint every last detail upon my soul. Ironically, only the words of the imprisoned ex military leader Charles Taylor could truly capture my feelings, I felt an understanding of his sentiment as he went into the exile that caused the end of the conflict in 2003, “God willing, I will be back.”

Posted by Adam Immerwahr, Producing Associate at McCarter Theatre.

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