Danai Gurira— actor, playwright, activist, visionary, cultural connector, change-maker—believes that storytelling is an act of activism. Fierce doesn’t cut it, talented is scratching the surface. As Michonne on The Walking Dead and Okoye in Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War; as a critically acclaimed playwright; as the organizer behind multiple initiatives to bring awareness and opportunity to African voices—she’s an unstoppable force. Danai Gurira inspires all of us to dig a little deeper, care a little more and never act solely for our own benefit.
Let’s begin with the moment. Gurira was a social psychology major at Macalester University, gearing up for a life in academia, when a semester abroad in South Africa emboldened her, as an activist, to choose storytelling as her career. Scratch that. Gurira doesn’t like the word. “To me, there’s something about the word ‘career’ that connotes something you’re trying to exhibit versus something that you are and something that you’re trying to contribute to the world. I tend to call it my life’s work: this is what my life is, this is the work that my life is about.”
Most of us know her now as a rising Hollywood star—which is the tiniest fragment of what she is—but Gurira was unsure up until this moment whether she would pursue a path that would bring her to our screens. “I was struggling with the idea of being a theater major because I wanted to engage in activist realmed work and I wasn’t sure if theater allowed that.”
“In South Africa, I was in a program called Arts and Social Change and met all these people—from artists to actors to photographers—who had put themselves on the line through their art to challenge apartheid. We know some of them very well, like John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who are the two men who won Tony’s in this country in the 1980s because of their plays The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead. When they would perform in South Africa, half of the time they would get arrested and detained. South Africa was trying to lock down how dark and ugly apartheid was and keep it going. These artists are the ones who blew it open and brought the conscience of the rest of the world to this nation’s plight.”
“That really blew my mind,” she continues. “Right there on the University of Cape Town campus in the midst of that stunning Table Mountain lock where the campus is embedded I had to stop and think. I realized I had no right to not do what I was actually passionate about which was storytelling. I’m an American citizen; I have access to a lot of opportunities and I have no excuse. It was at that moment I made the decision to become a storyteller, to change my whole plan and to focus largely on African women’s stories because, for some reason, they are so under told. Yet they are such astounding stories that must be told.”
Fifteen years later, she describes this as, “the moment where your heart breaks through and defines your destiny to you—if you dare to listen.” Although Gurira was born in the United States, her family moved back to Zimbabwe when she was four. Along with them came all her mother’s books.
“My mother’s a librarian so I grew up around a lot of literature. It was such a beautiful thing because in that living room, even today, there’s everything on that shelf I need. From Shakespeare to James Baldwin to Judy Blume--I was reading everything growing up.” Gurira describes her childhood as “blissful, idyllic. I got really involved in sports, speech, and drama. I was a bit of a jock. I loved French. I had the twangy accents that no one else had. But everyone knew what an American accent was and they knew why I had it.” Although she was exposed to an array of literature growing up, it was the early 80’s and Zimbabwe had just gained independence from Britain. The residual effects of that colonial structure endured in the narratives that she was exposed to growing up.
“Jane Austen and Blake, that’s what I studied in school. I was very conscious of that. Then of course there were the American movies that we all watched in Zimbabwe like the rest of the world. The massive export of America. The largesse of the television and film in America is what makes it such a powerful nation globally. People know Americanisms. They know what American life is to some extent,” Gurira explains. “Sometimes they might isolate it to be one way, but they know what American life is to some extent because they’ve watched Dynasty and they’ve watched Boyz n the Hood. They’ve seen a landscape. That is something that is very, very powerful about telling stories. It can influence. I was involved when Malcolm X came out. Everyone started to walk around with these big Xs around their necks and there was no exception, Zimbabweans were doing it too.”
Gurira understands the intrinsic power of a story to enact change. “That’s why I want so desperately to see more African stories put on the big screen and disseminated in the same way. Once you’re misrepresented as much as Africans have been it starts to become quite damaging. Africa has everything. It has abject poverty but people don’t know the extent to which Africa is developed. When you try to explain that there are many experiences on the continent, it can be challenging for people to comprehend. I think storytelling can help undo some of that.”
Although she was inundated with American and British stories and sought out James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, she didn’t learn much about her own nation’s history. “That’s why I became ravenous about the continent of Africa when I came to the United States. And that fueled the outrage.”
Outrage. Gurira uses that word over and over again in a voice that makes you shiver because the feeling behind it comes from her gut. It’s the force that drives her to do everything she does, create everything she creates. “I think to be an artist you have to care exponentially more than maybe what is healthy. You have to care like crazy. From that care will come the outrage because you will see what is broken, what is unjust, and what is a myth.”
In our culture, we tend to view anger—rage—negatively. We tend to associate those emotions with destructive and violent behavior rather than their creative potential.We tend to focus on their destructive and violent expressions, rather than embracing their creative potentiality. We tend to focus on their destructive and violent expressions and forget that they are the driving force behind creativity. An artist could be seen as someone who directs that energy instead of repressing it. Repression, as we know, is never a good idea. Because we cannot will anger out of existence; it’s a natural phenomenon. Holding it down, restricting it, can result in an explosion of volcanic proportions. It is in its pure form, active and positive.
“If you’re not outraged I don’t think you’re engaged. It’s about how you temper it and what you do with your outrage that is core and key. It’s often about the lack of—why is there such a gap here? Why is this not been seen or told or heard about? Why is this link in the chain so absent? I’m passionate about women and women of the diaspora,” Gurira adamantly says. “Although it burns, it always gets me to a place filled with love. But the outrage? That’s the fuel. The fuel that lights the fire.”
“I look at countries like Liberia. They’ve come through so much madness at the hands of men warring for resources and power that they railed their country down to its knees. That country’s response was to look to the women to heal the situation and bring the country to a place of sanity.
Then a woman became the first president of an African nation ever. Men are definitely still at the table, but it’s time to really see a new method of how we move the world forward. I think that is going to come from women. With female leadership in action. We need to give it a shot...that’s where you go from outrage to hope and love. You know what I mean?”
First she took that outrage to Macalester University, where she found an international community of like-minded individuals who were as engaged as she was. “I was in a very, very bubbling place in terms of voices and mindsets and passions.
We would fight with our administration. Bring up issues and be connected to the world. Ask organizations, Caribbean organizations, Free Tibet organizations, Palestinian organizations. Everything was going on in that campus. Everyone was coming from the place of passion and connection.” As a social psychology major, she loved “the things you could get into concerning race, identity, why certain trends can ever occur like apartheid or segregation.
Even if you look at issues like Brown vs the Board of Education, advocacy has to come with psychological research that shows the effects of negative or discriminatory practices on minds and society.” After witnessing how powerful storytelling was in combatting apartheid in South Africa, she decided to change course. “It was at Macalester that I started to find my own voice and understand how the world works. Going to grad school was then about allowing myself to find my own path. I knew it wouldn’t look like anybody else’s.”
The choice to enroll in a Graduate acting program can be traced back to her childhood. In Zimbabwe, she was involved in a children’s theatre workshop throughout her adolescence. Teeter, unlike her schooling, provided a place to create narratives and explore her own cultural heritage. “We’d learn traditional dance, which of course we weren’t learning anywhere else. We’d create our own narratives that were timely and about the things we cared about. It wasn’t an industry like here where you got fame and fortune from it. There was a history to how they approached the craft which had to do with social engagement. I was being taught by people who used it, once again, to protest--like the theater did during colonization and apartheid.”
She carried that sentiment with her when she enrolled in her Grad Acting Program at New York University. “I was going to school to learn all the rules so I could break them. It was very, very clear to me that I was going to tell African women’s stories. It was actually necessity being the mother of invention. I couldn’t find them so I knew I had to create them.”
“Many people stop at the idea and they never get to the finish line. Where your artistry is crafted and molded is in that final lap. Then you have something to give the world that, stunningly enough, is the real key piece of art. It’s timeless. There’s nothing easy about it,” she says. “My plays take so long to write. They take so long to develop. They take so long to get on the stage. They take so long to rehearse then put together. Once you finally get to that moment where you can look at the finished product and say, ‘that’s what I meant.’ That’s the feeling that you do it all again for.”
During her time at New York University, she co-wrote her first play In the Continuum about two courageous women; one in South Central LA and one in Zimbabwe, who get infected with HIV. From there she wrote Eclipsed, which was the first all-female, all-black cast on Broadway led by Broadway’s only two black lead producers. Then The Convert and Familiar. “Breaking the statistical way African women will be looked at in terms of HIV and AIDS? That’s what I addressed in Continuum. Breaking the way African women are silenced during war and how we only know the names of the warlords? That’s what I addressed in Eclipsed. How colonization has never been really explored from the black female perspective? That’s what The Convert was about. What it means to be an immigrant in this country?
That’s what Familiar was about. All my plays are acts of activism. I said if I can create a piece where people have to spend two hours with an African female protagonist, that’s activism. Right there.” But Gurira doesn’t settle with “right there,” she’s the type of person who says, “now what?”
“I’m not just gonna have a show on Broadway to just have a show on Broadway. This is going to be a time of activism, a time to connect people more deeply with real issues. Living, breathing issues that should not exist.” The ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign was a movement that erupted as an outraged response to the kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram. After each Broadway performance of Eclipsed, the names of the girls who were still in captivity were read out loud to the audience who then had to repeat back the names.
There was information about the campaign provided in everyone’s seats. Members of the organization and the girls who successfully escaped were invited to come and give talk backs after the show. She seized the opportunity to provide a platform for voices that are silenced and to spread the message as far as she could. This play was about engagement, not escapism. Rather than leaning back on passive phrases like “nothing ever changes,” or “it’s not possible,” Gurira takes an active stance beyond the stage to initiate change.
She has started two organizations—Love Our Girls and Almasi—both of which support voices that need to be heard. “Love Our Girls brings the struggles of girls and women to the forefront just simply to be creating a hub. An awareness hub that celebrates the work people are doing across the world, around those moral issues. The idea of Almasi is rooted in the need to see more African artists get opportunities. I’ve had a lot of access and opportunities because I was born in the United States.
There are a lot of kids who were born in the ghettos of Harare or other parts of the continent and they don’t have those opportunities but they’re equally, or more, talented than I am. How do we find a way to give access and opportunity to the African artists in those parts of the world?” By bringing Americans to Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans to America.
“We have two fellows right now from the ghettos of Harare getting their MFA’s in writing in California.” Gurira is also planning to take an American playwright to Zimbabwe to curate a festival in order to find more talented playwrights to support. “It’s a brick by brick process to help every artist we can.”
With all that, it’s astounding she even has time to act; a branch of her life-work that has been just as active since she left her Graduate acting program.
“I just do what I feel I must do, you know what I mean? I don’t know how to live a non multi-tasking life. I envy those who can just do one thing at a time in life. I have no idea what that feels like.” The opening night of Eclipsed—which went on to receive six Tony nominations, including Best Performance for Lupita Nyong’o (her Black Panther co-star)—brought Gurira another groundbreaking opportunity. “I was coming out of the premier and my manager says, ‘Oh, we have an offer for you from Marvel.’ I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, go back.”
Yes, first things first. Before we get into her kick-ass role in Black Panther, let’s go back a few years when she received the call to audition for Michonne on The Walking Dead; the role that brought Gurira, the actor, into our living rooms. “The audition came through an amazing casting director who knew me from my theater work. She was always trying to find the right fit for me. When she wanted to bring me in to audition at first I was like, ‘I’ve heard this show is great but I’m scared of scary stuff. I started researching her and... I’d never come across a character like that. A black woman, dreadlocks, a sword, very mysterious in the comic book and had an amazing impact on the story she was telling. I was like, ‘this is so fascinating. Who is this? Who created this?’” “Then I started to watch the show and that really got me. You look at the people who put it together: Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Lennie James, Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun.
These were people who came to the floor and said, ‘we have nothing to lose, everyone’s wondering what the heck is a zombie TV show. We’re just gonna give it everything we’ve got.’ I could feel that when I watched it. I felt the integrity of the story telling, I felt the truth, I felt that powerful, passionate thing you watch when, as an artist, you watch other artists doing their thing. They make you want to get up and do your thing. It just came out of my mouth sitting alone in my own living room. ‘I have to be a part of this.’”
Michonne is one the most popular characters on The Walking Dead and steadily over five seasons she evolved into the show’s chief female protagonist. Equipped with a katana, she is a badass warrior woman and Gurira has been enrapturing audiences with the same inner outrage that expresses itself in such varied, complex and stunning ways. We’re seeing more and more roles that portray women as warriors, heroines and protectors, but Michonne emerged at a time when audiences craved a fierce feminine presence.
“I hand that to the creators of the show and Michonne. I don’t hand that to myself. I just auditioned,” she admits. “With the plays that I wrote, I didn’t have a precedence to hang my hat on, but nonetheless it needed to be told. That’s what artists do. They’re visionaries. They bring forth what hasn’t been asked for yet and then there’s a realization: ‘Oh, this is what we’ve been wanting but we hadn’t asked for it yet.’ I don’t know if that’s the case for everybody concerning Michonne. I do know that she was very popular from the comic books and people really wanted to see her brought to life.”
Gurira approaches every aspect of her life-work with a deep conviction that comes from—what appears to be—a supply of energy that constantly replenishes itself. Thoughtful and well-spoken seem like too casual adjectives after spending an hour with Gurira. If she is going to take on any acting role, she needs to feel it in her gut, soul, heart and spirit. Tat’s passion.
“Firstly, you have to live your life by your joy. My heart has to have a little leap inside usually to give myself to an acting role. Because it’s no small thing to take on a story. I think it’s something kind of divine quite honestly. You have to become somewhat of a vessel for some new wave to come through you and to become worthy of that role--and that takes a lot of work and a lot of submission,” Gurira imparts with conviction. “Is this a role I could sleep at night knowing I’m doing? Is my soul at peace? But also, is there a passionate reason I can verbalize as to why I must tell this story at this time?”
When it came time to play bad-ass female “Part Deux” in Black Panther, “the feeling was overwhelming.” Directed by Ryan Coogler, it is one of the most anticipated films of 2018. Ninety percent of the star-studded cast is either African or African-American so already on paper, the film aligns with Gurira’s mission. Plus she plays Okoye—the head of the king’s all-female special forces unit—another female powerhouse we cannot wait to meet.
“I didn’t know anything about Black Panther at the time. I knew of Ryan Coogler, but didn’t know him, and when I met him I said, “I don’t know you but I’m proud of you.” I’ve always been proud of Ryan Coogler. The fact that he was attached was really exciting. Then sitting down and hearing his vision. Oh, yeah, that feeling was just overwhelming. I’ve never been a part of a big thing like that where I got to express and explore my African-ness, you know, as an actor. Stepping into these African characters and this African world, giving that culture and language specificity, I mean, it was a lot of hard work.”
Brimming with conviction, outrage, poise and grace, Gurira dares to dream a little bigger, think a little harder and direct her passions towards a greater good. She chose storytelling as her act of activism—to bring African women’s stories to the forefront of our consciousness. Relentless in her mission, she has the power to inspire—even the tenor of her voice resonates with an astounding authenticity. Grounded in her sense of purpose; her message is sharp and poignant, and her success has become a tool to further that higher ambition. Whether or not she sees herself as a role model is not a simple answer. She pauses to consider that delicate idea with care. “That’s a term I haven’t thought on deeply. I guess that is something that people tell you that you are. What I do say to myself is ‘to whom much is given much is expected’ which is a verse from the bible. It’s about responsibility, it’s about how you deal with the position you’ve been given or the opportunities you’ve been given. I’ve received much and much is expected of me and I’m going to strive to do the best I can for others. I stand on the shoulders of others; others must stand on my shoulders also.”
“I’m at my apartment here in Georgia because I’m in Atlanta for work. I have this portrait of Cicely Tyson in my apartment because I wanted to make this apartment as an ode to artists and you know, that’s an iconic woman right there. A woman I can look to as a role model because I watched her on stage 5 years ago in her 90s, eight shows a week, literally floating around on her tiptoes. I watched her doing an amazing job in an amazingly challenging role—a 90-something-year old woman. I watched her on How to Get Away With Murder doing astounding work. The grace, beauty, power and elegance that’s continued decade, after decade, after decade. That, to me, is a role model. That’s an iconic individual who I look to remember to retain a sense of self and grace and try to get some elegance in there, you know?”
A role model, by definition, leads by example. They embody possibility and defiance. We come into this world with innate gifts but not equal opportunity—and the opportunities we do have are because of those who came before us. If we contemplate the generations and generations that preceded us, we know that our dreams and aspirations are part of a larger legacy. In that sense, she is driven by that gratitude to pave ways for the next generation.
“To me, I know I stand on her shoulders like we stand on many, many people’s shoulders who’ve gone through much harder times than I have. So, yes. I do feel the calling to make sure I try the best I absolutely can, and human as I absolutely am, to do the same to my utmost ability. If that equates to role model then I accept the responsibility.”
FOR MORE ON GURIRA, PICK UP A COPY OF HER COVER STORY IN ROGUE’S ISSUE #8!
Photographer: Benjo Arwas
Stylist: Jordan Grossman
Makeup: Agostina @ Exclusive Artists Management
Using Tarte Cosmetics
Manicurist: Chelsea King @ Celestine using Orly
Writer: Maria Mocerino