No time for z’s be­tween zom­bies and Zim­babwe

Danai Gurira grap­ples ghouls on TV and colo­nial­ism at Woolly Mam­moth

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY NEL­SON PRESS­LEY

Danai Gurira from A to Z: well, mostly Z. As in Zim­babwe.

That’s where the in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble, Iowa-born Gurira was raised, and it’s the sub­ject of her new his­tor­i­cal drama cur­rently at Woolly Mam­moth The­atre Com­pany, “The Con­vert.” The story takes place in 1895, ex­plor­ing seven African characters grap­pling with the rise of colo­nial­ism and Chris­tian­ity in what was painfully be­com­ing Rhode­sia.

“It’s a tricky thing, Zim­babwe,” Gurira says, but she doesn’t want to say much more. From orig­i­nal col­o­nizer Ce­cil Rhodes to cur­rent Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe, the pol­i­tics are com­pli­cated. She dreads over­sim­pli­fy­ing.

On this, at least, she’s al­most as tac­i­turn as Mi­chonne, the char­ac­ter she plays in the splat­tery AMC ca­ble hit “The Walking Dead.” Right: Z is also for zom­bie killer. Gurira is a for­mi­da­ble fig­ure on “Walking Dead’s” blasted land­scape, coolly slic­ing the heads off zom­bies with her samu­rai sword even though dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view with Larry King, Gurira laughed that she’s al­ways hated

slasher tales.

As Mi­chonne, Gurira burns with sus­pi­cion, hacks through the un­dead and sloshes through spilled guts, yet she in­sists that the show is not a mere gore-fest. Sit­ting in Woolly’s lobby, Gurira — 35, im­pos­ingly fit, and a swift, smart talker — tog­gles back to play­wright mode as she out­lines the lit­er­ary theme.

“It was about who do you be­come?” Gurira says of the TV show, which she has un­ex­pect­edly come to love. “And that re­minded me of ‘ Eclipsed,’ the idea of a war zone, like Liberia. Ev­ery­thing just shut down, like an apoc­a­lypse. And it was a free-for-all about what so­ci­ety was.”

“Eclipsed,” Gurira’s drama about the cap­tured “wives” of an op­pres­sive rebel leader in 2003 Liberia, pre­miered at Woolly three sea­sons ago be­fore be­ing staged in New York. It marked Gurira’s tran­si­tion from writer-per­former to drama­tist.

“I said, ‘I want to be the play­wright,’ ” she re­calls. “Let’s see if I can do that.”

Gurira first emerged with “In the Con­tin­uum,” the two-per­son drama she cre­ated with co-star Nikkole Sal­ter while they were in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at New York Univer­sity’s Tisch School of the Arts. Sal­ter played a woman in Los An­ge­les, Gurira played a woman in Zim­babwe; the two never met, but their sto­ries were linked as both suf­fered from AIDS. In 2006, Sal­ter and Gurira won Obies for their work.

Since then, Gurira has es­tab­lished her­self as an un­usu­ally ver­sa­tile per­former. She’s done Shake­speare in Cen­tral Park, star­ring as Is­abella in “Mea­sure for Mea­sure,” which she calls “One of my fond­est cre­ative mem­o­ries.” The New York Times praised her “thrilling in­ten­sity” as the Catholic novice who is pressed by a wicked duke to sur­ren­der her vir­gin­ity or let her brother die.

On screen in “The Vis­i­tor,” Gurira played the Sene­galese girl­friend of a Syr­ian drum­mer, both of them im­mi­grants in­ad­ver­tently shar­ing a Man­hat­tan apart­ment with the shy fig­ure played by the Os­car-nom­i­nated Richard Jenk­ins. Up next: Gurira has the ti­tle role in “Mother of Ge­orge,” a success last month at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val. Va­ri­ety praised her per­for­mance as “in­can­des­cent”; Gurira says the film — an im­mi­grant drama set in Brook­lyn — may be re­leased this fall. (A dis­trib­u­tor has al­ready picked it up.)

All of this is off the point of what’s brought her to Woolly for a few days. She isn’t rewrit­ing: In fact, the play al­ready en­joyed an

Gurira came back to the States for col­lege. A se­mes­ter in South Africa in­tro­duced her to the idea of arts and so­cial change, and that was that.

ex­ten­sive “joint pre­miere” last year that be­gan at the McCarter The­atre in New Jersey be­fore mov­ing to Chicago’s Good­man The­atre, then the Cen­ter The­atre Group in Los An­ge­les.

But the Woolly team is new to the play, and Gurira is here to ad­vise. The long drama is packed with re­searched his­tory and features di­a­logue in Shona, the Zim­bab­wean lan­guage that Gurira’s par­ents spoke to each other while us­ing English with the kids. (Gurira re­grets that.) The story deals with a young domestic ser­vant named Jekesai — Gurira’s real mid­dle name — who gets swept up in po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious changes dur­ing col­o­niza­tion un­der Ce­cil Rhodes, the even­tual name­sake of Rhode­sia and founder of the De Beers di­a­mond com­pany.

Am­bi­tious as it is, “The Con­vert” is the first play of a pro­jected tril­ogy about Zim­babwe. Gurira once de­clined an of­fer to write a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle on the coun­try, in­stead choos­ing “to do what I do, which is cre­ate a dra­matic nar­ra­tive,” she says. “And I have to do it from go­ing way back.”

Gurira is Chris­tian, some­thing she was loosely raised with and fully chose as an adult. “The Con­vert” deals with re­li­gion head on.

“The top lead­ers of the Angli­can churches and the Catholic churches come out of the con­ti­nent,” she says. “So it’s this sort of thing where peo­ple start to make very brash state­ments about how Chris­tian­ity came to Africa and how Africans aren’t be­ing them- selves if they’re Chris­tian. ”

She was born in Iowa, but the fam­ily moved to Zim­babwe when she was 4. (Her Zim­bab­wean par­ents, now back in the United States, are aca­demics. Gurira, sin­gle, cur­rently lives in L.A.) Gurira de­scribes her years there as the na­tion’s “golden age,” tick­ing off statis­tics about lit­er­acy rates and com­par­a­tive com­fort that made the Ethiopian poverty of “We Are the World” jaw-drop­pingly alien when she was a kid.

“I grew up when ev­ery­thing worked,” Gurira says. “We had a fan­tas­tic health sys­tem, a fan­tas­tic ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem, jobs. We had a great econ­omy, we were one-to-one with the U.S. dol­lar. That’s what I grew up in.”

Like her three older sib­lings, Gurira came back to the States for col­lege, study­ing psychology at Ma­calester Col­lege in St. Paul, Minn. A se­mes­ter abroad in South Africa in­tro­duced her to the idea of arts and so­cial change, and that was that. By the time she ap­plied to grad­u­ate pro­grams in the­ater, Gurira says she ner­vously but firmly told in­ter­view­ers that she wanted to tell sto­ries of Africa.

Re­peat­edly, that’s how she de­scribes her­self — not as an ac­tor or a play­wright, but as a sto­ry­teller. The iden­tity came while she stud­ied act­ing at Tisch.

“It’s just how the great Zelda Fichan­dler of D.C. de­signed the pro­gram,” she says of the re­tired Arena Stage founder, who men­tored Gurira at school. “She said to me one time, ‘I did not cre­ate a pro­gram where my artists sit by the phone. They have to al­ways know that they’re cre­ators.’ The pro­gram makes you a very trained clas­si­cal artist, but it also makes you some­one who knows how to get up and cre­ate work from scratch.”

Based on the scale of “The Con­vert,” the Zim­babwe tril­ogy will in­volve a lot more writ­ing, and Gurira even has a fourth con­nected play in the works. This is what can hap­pen when you dread over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion.

“The con­ver­sa­tion is far more com­pli­cated than what you see to­day,” Gurira de­clares. “And I think trekking through the en­tire his­tory of Zim­babwe is some­thing that I needed to do.”

ROB WHITE

AM­BI­TIOUS: Danai Gurira’s “The Con­vert” be­gins a tril­ogy on Zim­babwe. She also stars on “The Walking Dead.”

SCOTT SUCHMAN

CROSSES TO BEAR: Nancy Moricette stars in Woolly Mam­moth’s “The Con­vert,” which takes place in 1895 Zim­babwe as colo­nial­ism and Chris­tian­ity are be­ing in­tro­duced.

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