Interview with Danai Gurira

Shortly before rehearsal for The Convert began, literary intern Kaitlin Stilwell sat down with playwright Danai Gurira to discuss her play and her career.

Kaitlin Stilwell: You’re both an actor and a playwright. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to a life in the theater?

Danai Gurira: My theater life began pretty early on. I was born in the United States but raised in Zimbabwe. I actually spent a lot of time in theater there as a child. I was part of a children’s performing arts workshop, which really introduced me to the dramatic arts. The head of it, one of the founders, is a professor in English and Dramatic Arts.  He taught at University of Zimbabwe for several years, but originally, he’s a white South African/Brit.  He indoctrinated me into theater back then and got me very interested in the craft. And then it just kind of snowballed, throughout high school and into college, though I wasn’t a theater major in college, I was a psychology major.

In terms of writing, I just wasn’t finding e nough stories about contemporary African people—or historical, just anything, the whole gamut.  I was raised in southern Africa and I came back to the West for college.  I was starting to look for what I would like to perform, what I would like to see put to life onstage, and I was finding many stories about everybody else, but none about my own people. My playwriting became a “necessity being the mother of invention” type thing. I wasn’t finding what I wanted to perform, so I started to create it myself.

KS: You’ve had a relationship with McCarter for several years now.  Can you talk about how that began and has progressed?

DG: The relationship with McCarter began during my first play, In the Continuum, which is a two woman show that I co-performed with my beloved creative sister, Nikkole Salter. We were summoned here by Emily Mann. And when you are summoned, you come. We did not know exactly why, but she was just like, “I want to know you. I want to know what you’re doing next, and that’s that.” We were like, “Cool.” So really from there on, she, and the institution as a whole, have been probably the most supportive institution of my work.  My next play was Eclipsed, which they said, “Okay, what’s the next step?” And I said, “I need to go to Liberia.” And so they applied for the grant with me and got me to Liberia. It’s just been that sort of a thing, and this next trilogy that The Convert is a part of, they helped me get another grant to go to Zimbabwe to do the work on that. It’s just been constant support. Really they’re kind of my closest ally, when it comes to my voice and getting it out there. Ever since we were summoned, it’s just been a consistent relationship since then.

KS: Can you talk a little bit about the bigger play cycle The Convert is a part of?

DG:  I have no idea how many parts will be in the cycle, I’ll say that off the bat.  It’s part one of my cycle on Zimbabwe, on Zimbabwean identity. A lot of stuff was going on in Zimbabwe in 2008 and I was asked to write about it in a journalistic type way.  I really didn’t feel that I was qualified; I felt like there was so much going on and it was all rooted in something very ancient—something not present, not today. There’s just so much that leads to what actually has been going on. I’m not a journalist, I’m a dramatist. So I felt the need to explore my own Zimbabwean identity and the country as a whole the only way I know how, which is through dramatic writing. So I started to create; I went back. The Convert is part one because it’s where I go back to the inciting incident, which is really when Zimbabwe, which was called Rhodesia, or Southern Rhodesia, became a colony. That inciting incident, the concept of ownership and the concept of cultural identity, and the concept of right and wrong and moral ideals, all these things still flood who we are today. The Convert is set in the 1890s, when the first uprising against the colonial structure occurred. And for me that’s really where that inciting incident rests. I could go further back, honestly, but you know, the largest inciting incident was when two very major ethnic groups in Zimbabwe—what is now Zimbabwe—the Shona and the Ndebele, rose up against the Western ideology. And of course the question of faith, and the new Christian identity that was coming into Zimbabwe, which is very strong in Zimbabwe now, that’s also where it was starting and really taking root. So The Convert was really exploring all of that in myself, being a Christian, being a Zimbabwean, being someone who loves the culture of my country as well. All those things are part of me as well, but it’s all rooted in a play about the 1890s.

KS: That’s fantastic. Can you talk about the other parts of the cycle?

DG: I’m looking at the present century, the present decade. I’m looking at the 1970s, which is when the liberation struggle, the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence, happened. Basically a liberation conglomerate rose up against the Rhodesian government in the 70s, and resulted in Zimbabwe becoming Zimbabwe. That will definitely be its own play. And then the 1980s, 1990s and right now could be two, three plays, who knows. I’m also interested in the 1930s, the 1940s and the 1950s. I was talking to a lot of people when I was home about all these different time periods, and they’re all fascinating. 
Though I went to high school in Zimbabwe I actually studied history very specifically in what you call AP and what we call A-Level in the British system. And still I didn’t really grapple with this stuff. Because in some ways it’s very politicized, our history. I’m not trying to look at all the politicized aspects, I just want to know what happened. For myself, and consequently for my plays. And hopefully, maybe, for others.

KS: You’ve written other plays set in Africa (In the Continuum, Eclipsed), but Zimbabwe is where you grew up.  Are there ways in which this play is more personal for you?

DG: It’s more personal. Everything I learn hits me in a different way than when I went to Liberia.  I was very connected with that, but as an African. When women would share their stories of what they went through during the wretched civil war that happened there, they would embrace me as a sister and share very intimate details with me. They trusted me, they looked at me as family. Which is deeply humbling and a beautiful thing to experience, and also a great responsibility to take their stories and try and give them voice.

In terms of this, it’s just a whole other level of personal.  Because The Convert is inspired somewhat by stories I know of my maternal grandfather’s aunt, who has a very similar story to the lead character, to a point. She fled her family, went to the Catholic church, became a nun, a little after the period of The Convert but not much after. My own grandmother, who became a very staunch Methodist, asked her father if she could go and join the missionaries and learn under them, and became a teacher.  She stepped out of a very specific cultural system—her father was a very powerful chief. And he allowed her to go, he became a Christian too—he didn’t give up his wives, but he became a Christian, too. This is my history. There were all sorts of things that were going on that are very personal to me. That it’s just exploring my own identity, really, that’s a different level than anything else I’ve ever done.

KS: A really interesting thing about the way you choose to tell the story is that we only see the effects of the Eurpoean colonists through the interactions of the African characters; there are no European characters in the play.  Was that a choice you made early on, or something that came to be in the writing of the play?

DGi: I think it’s both. I did consider I think in quite an early draft, one of the white clergy making an appearance in the play. But then the play just didn’t make room for him, and I kind of liked that. So it was very much a choice, and also something that was informed by the play, that there would be no Europeans in the play. But their presence is still deeply felt, which is in some ways the point.

KS: In The Convert, some of the characters speak Shona and it remains untranslated for the audience.  Can you speak a bit about why you felt it was important to use the Shona language in the play, and about the choice to let it remain foreign to our ears?

DG: Meaningful communication is an aspect of who we are as human beings. You don’t need to know exactly what everyone’s saying word for word to hear it, to see people living in a different world and to hear that they don’t speak American English. And you know, I think people will think, “I get what’s going on,” and that’s what’s awesome. I don’t need to hear every single word, don’t need it to be spelled out for me. Audiences, I think, are much smarter than we give them credit for. Really, there was absolutely no way I could write this play with the Shona not being there. We took a lot out—there are some people actually tinkering with the play in Zimbabwe, and I’ll put a lot more in for that version. But in terms of what’s happening with it here, I think there was no way to avoid having the Shona in it. I think that it’s an element that is not only crucial and essential, but is also enriching, for the Western ear. They’ll get lost but only a little bit, and then they’ll catch up.

KS: What were the challenges of writing the play?

DG: Finding the language, finding what was true. There’s no real record that I have found that gives you the exact way Zimbabweans, and Africans at that time, spoke English. I know how we speak it now, I know how we’ve been speaking it, I know the different ways that people of different classes and different education levels speak it. So that’s where your imagination as a dramatist has to take over. In some ways it’s rooted in people I know, but in other ways it had to be specific to the period. So it was really about finding that, and when I did find it, it was very enjoyable to put it on the page, and to find out how Chilford says things like “Goodness of Graciousness,” or “Be of silence.” That became really fun, but finding that, and knowing I had a burden on me to find something that speaks to that possible way that Zimbabweans spoke back in the 1890s, the Zimbabweans who spoke English—that was an interesting challenge. It became a joy, but initially it was a challenge.

KS: The play is set in a very specific historical period.  Did you do a lot of research?  How did you balance being faithful to history with being faithful to the needs of your play?

DG: I’m a child of academics. My father is a chemistry professor, my mother is a librarian. So I grew up around books, I grew up around academic speak, I grew up around academics in general, so I’m kind of a natural researcher. I like to get to know things, I like to delve deep, I like to find out interesting details. When I get fascinated by a time period or an issue or historical aspects of things, I like to go into those things and really start to use them to inform what I dramatically create. So in some ways it was really about finding what was interesting that was actually happening, and then creating characters and situations based on what was actually happening. Before I start writing I always have to do some research, and at some point I say, okay I think I can write, and I write for a while and then I go back and research some more, and then I go back and forth and back and forth. I really allow the facts to inform the fiction. And that keeps me balanced. There are some things chronologically that you’re like, that doesn’t help me that that happens then, I need it to happen more quickly, can we jump time? And we’re dealing with that a little bit. Just little tweaks in the chronology of things that can get a little annoying, but you always find a way around them. It’s not a documentary, so if I tweak with things a little bit, hey. I never said it was a documentary. It’s inspired by true historical experiences.

KS: What surprised you in researching and writing the play?

DG: I guess I was surprised by several things. I was surprised by the experiences of Africans during this time, in certain ways, the way that some were doing one thing and some were doing another and there was already such a clear division going on, in terms of some blacks were very,” let’s get rid of the whites,” and some were working for them.  I was surprised when I started to realize how common a phenomenon it was for African women to flee oppressive situations in their homestead and go to the church. That phenomenon was happening that early and that extensively. That’s all very interesting stuff to me.  [There was a spirit medium, a woman, Nehanda]  I found a lot of pictures of her being captured with a fellow medium called Kaguvi.  [They were both leaders of the rebellion, who were eventually executed. Kaguvi, before he was executed, converted to Christianity.]  And Nehanda, the woman, never converted. There were these two accounts of [her death]: [in one,] she went to the gallows screaming and shouting hysterically. And then the other account, historically, was she went to the gallows singing and dancing to her ancestors.  I really started to realize the question, who owns the history, whose version or interpretation gets voice.

KS: I just have one more question for you. What do you think this story has to say to us in this particular moment in history?  What do you hope will resonate with an audience today?

DG: This play got an award at the National Theater Conference. And the lady who presented it, who’s a lovely Midwestern lady from Nebraska, as Caucasian as can be, she said, “You know this play really affected me, and I could see myself in it, my daughter in it, my mother in it.” That’s kind of the thing I aim for: The universal. The more specific you get in your cultural expression, the more human you’re going to get. The idea that sometimes I hear even from my own fellow artists in Zimbabwe is, we have to make it commercially viable, we have to make it work for the rest of the world. I say, actually that’s going to make it not work. Because it’s going to step it away from the truth. If you delve really specifically into your cultural realm, you actually create the strongest stuff, that actually becomes more universally connected. So I kind of hope that that’s the response to this play, where they actually see themselves in it, in some realm. That struggle for identity, that struggle to truly hone on self, that struggle to decide, “What is my truth?” and what extent will I go to to remain true to my truth? All these influences are going to come at me and tell me what to be and who to be, and that is a huge experience of today. But who do I, what do I stand up for, where is my integrity, where is my truth, and what do I say yes or no to in society and who does that make me.  How do I affect change in the world, in the realm that I’m in. I think that is really the struggle and the specificity of this character. What is institutional and what is personal, and what is oppressive and what is choice. And I think that that struggle that she goes to to find her own self, I think is something that I hope can be identified with by many.