Actress-playwright Danai Gurira

Acclaimed as much for writing plays as for her acting, Gurira—one of the stars of The Walking Dead—reflects on her role in the new indie film, Mother of George.

Danai Gurira has garnered critical buzz as both a playwright and an actress. She initially drew attention with her co-lead role in the award-winning play, In the Continuum, which she co-wrote while enrolled in NYU's acting program, and also won awards for her second outing, Eclipsed. Her film and TV acting credits include The Visitor, Mother of George, which premiered this year at Sundance, HBO's Tremé and her current role in AMC's The Walking Dead. Gurira was born in the U.S. and raised in Zimbabwe, the home country of her parents. She was a Hodder Fellow at Princeton and is co-founder of Almasi, an organization dedicated to continuing arts education in Zimbabwe.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: As Michonne, the ferocious warrior in the hit series “The Walking Dead,” I’m not even going to do this. I got through the cold open, but she pronounces her name so much more beautifully and lovely than I do. So what’s your name?

Danai Gurira: Danai Gurira.

Tavis: There you go. (Laughter) She seems invincible as she battles to survive a zombie apocalypse. It’s a role that’s earned her a devoted cult following, but in a new independent film titled “Mother of George,” she takes on a character who’s navigating territory that’s more familiar – family expectations.

She pays a newlywed Nigerian immigrant now living in Brooklyn, struggling to have a baby. Let’s take a look at a clip from “Mother of George.”

[Clip]

Tavis: Danai, we’re glad to have you on the program.

Gurira: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: I’m going to come to “The Walking Dead” for all your “Walking Dead” fans watching tonight. We’ll get to that, I promise, though later in this conversation, so hold tight.

I want to start, though, with “Mother of George.” I want to start with this question. I read in an interview you did not too long ago about the significant number of times you turned down roles because of, to use your language, the “inauthentic way” that African women are so often portrayed.

So obviously you accepted this one, so there must be something authentic about the way you’re played in this, or portrayed, that you wanted to do. So tell me more about why you wanted this role and you didn’t turn this one down.

Gurira: This one was a no-brainer, really. The director, Andrew Dosunmu, who’s fantastic, is Nigerian, and has lived, like myself, has lived in the United States a very long time but is very, still connected to his homeland and to telling stories from the continent’s perspective.

He’s also a fantastic artist. He’ a photographer, he’s been in the fashion world, and then he’s been doing television and now going into film. He had such a very tangible and palpable vision of celebrating the African expression on American soil, which is what he’s been around in Brooklyn for the past 20 years, and what he really was missing and not seeing.

I felt the exact same way. So connecting with him, I knew I was in the exact right hands to tell this sort of a story, which is rarely told, but it’s kind of a new American story.

Tavis: Unpack that statement for me, because it’s fascinating – “the African expression on American soil.” Unpack that for me.

Gurira: Well, for me it goes way back. It goes back to that generation that first came here in the ’60s, like my parents. Like Barack Obama’s father, who came here in the ’60s from Kenya, from Zimbabwe, from those countries that were still in colonization.

They were sort of pioneering this new moment, where they’re allowed to come in here for education and to take it back home, which they all did. My parents did; took us back home in the ’80s and raised us there.

That whole sort of movement of time has brought more and more immigrants into the United States from Africa, who come here and build homes here, build lives here, but still bring their language here, their expression of self here, and create this sort of a hybrided meld of self.

I just feel like it’s fascinating to me just watching my own family, seeing my cousins have children here, seeing the generations go on, and seeing how people are still very connected to their home, but are actually, of course, Americans too.

That sort of a hybrided sense of self is something that I yearn to see more of expressed.

Tavis: What is it about that African expression on American soil that African Americans still don’t get?

Gurira: Oh, man, that’s a big question, Mr. Smiley. “Still don’t get.”

Tavis: Don’t get, don’t appreciate. I ask that against the backdrop, as you well know, that there is this ongoing discussion that our white brothers and sisters might not be aware of, but there’s always this ongoing conversation between Black folk and African folk, or Black Americans and African Americans, or Africans, I should say, that if you go into any barber shop on any given day, any neighborhood on any given day, and you got Black folk talking about Africans and Africans talking about Black folk.

On some things we agree, on some things we’re like ships passing in the night, even though we’re all from the motherland – you get my point. We’re the diaspora.

But there’s something that – there’s not always a connect. Does that make sense to you?

Gurira: It does, and it’s interesting, because I’ve always kind of felt a little in the middle of that.

Tavis: That’s why I’m asking, you’ve got both experiences.

Gurira: Right. So when I came back for college I was in Zimbabwe from age five to 19. I came back here for college, and I’m at a college where it’s a liberal arts college, there’s a lot of Africans.

It’s Macalester College, where Kofi Annan went. A lot of Africans come there; a lot of Caribbeans come there. There’s African Americans there as well. There’s a very interesting connection I feel to everybody, because of course I grew up on the continent, so I totally have a connection to that experience.

But I have parents who were here from the ’60s to the ’80s, and my entire life I grew up with a picture of Martin Luther King on the mantelpiece (laughter) that he signed for my mother.

Tavis: In Zimbabwe.

Gurira: In Zimbabwe.

Tavis: Wow.

Gurira: It still sits there. My mother is a university librarian, so our house was full of African American literature. I grew reading “Roots,” I grew up reading “Beloved,” I grew up reading James Baldwin.

Those are the books I would pull off of – so I always had a connection to here and to the African American experience, but of course I was deeply connected to the African experience too.

So it was always kind of distressing to me when I would see that tension, because to me it was like there’s a beautiful connect here, guys, and there’s the idea that the Africans have that I always want to say the Africans don’t feel so disconnected.

All the struggles that were fought for here in the United States for African Americans, you now enjoy the privileges of. You now come here and can enjoy privileges that were fought for by African Americans over several generations.

Then I look at the African American and I say, “Don’t feel,” because sometimes I feel the African American might feel a little like, almost intimidated by the African coming in and having a language and all that stuff.

I’m like, “You guys are an amazing manifestation of African strength. The sheer fact I look at an African American and see someone who looks just like my own cousin or someone on the motherland, I’m like, how beautiful is that that you endured all you endured and you still stand strong in African identity.

You’re, like, the strongest of the pack, after what you’ve been through in a place where you were the minority in number.

So to me, I think there’s just such a beautiful connect right there in all that we’ve experienced and where we’ve gotten to at this point, and the beauty of the fact that who we have in office kind of melds all of that right now.

I just think it’s a beautiful thing. So it does distress me when I see that tension, because I’m like there’s just so much to learn from both sides, and I think that’s the strength that we have, is to learn from each other.

Tavis: I should acknowledge that is a slice of what you get in the community. There’s all kinds of examples of where that African/African American connect is being made in this country; certainly on the continent in South Africa and beyond. Those connections are being made every single day.

Gurira: Absolutely.

Tavis: So I don’t mean to suggest that that is the universal story. But it’s a slice that I wanted your take on, given that you have lived in both universes. So now back to “Mother of George.”

Without giving too much of this away, because this story does have some twists and turns in it.

Gurira: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’ll let you top-line what the movie is.

Gurira: Well, the movie, it does deal with a lady who’s just come into the United States. She’s newly married to a man who she loves dearly, and really is very keen to – she’s very traditional in many ways, and is very keen to bring a family to this man, who has really navigated this realm and built up a small business.

They want that traditional life. She wants to bring him a beautiful home, a beautiful family. He has a very particular mother who’s a very strong lady and has a very clear vision also, that she will receive a son who will be called George, as her husband was called, who’s now late.

So that happens on the actual wedding night that the mother actually ordains that this is going to happen – you will have a son, he will be called George, which, of course, this lady, Adenike, totally embraces and wants deeply.

The snag is when that doesn’t start – that’s not happening. And a year has gone by, and a year and a half has gone by, and it’s a question of what’s going on and how you deal with that in this cultural realm.

How do you actually start to grapple with that? How do you communicate something as tricky as a fertility issue in a realm where people can be very reserved and always took this as a given?

All the family pressures, and the desires for oneself as a woman to be a mother, but also the pressures around her. How does that manifest in a new American immigrant?

Tavis: Clearly there are fertility issues here, and again, we don’t want to give too much of the story away, but that’s where the story, to your point, does, in fact, get fascinating.

But to your earlier point about pressures, fertility issues notwithstanding, when you are ordained and it is declared that X, Y, or Z is going to happen, or as I said earlier in the introduction there are expectations that people have in certain cultures. Is that something that you’re familiar with, those expectations?

Gurira: No. It’s funny, I grew up in such a different, like an alternative way in the sense of how my – because my parents were here for 20 years, so the way they raised their children, even thought it was on Zimbabwean soil, was very different from the way my peers were being raised.

We just – I was a very loudmouthed little girl, which was kind of rare. I was a very outspoken little girl.

Tavis: I can’t imagine that. (Laughter) You, outspoken?

Gurira: Yeah, yeah, it was like that. And it was unusual – it was unusual, and I was just in a home where my father was a very affirming man. He was an academic. He wanted his children to think for themselves, speak for themselves, and make their own decisions.

He just wanted to facilitate that, so he has three pretty strong-spoken daughters as we’ve grown up.

Tavis: Be careful what you ask for.

Gurira: Right. (Laughter) He likes it.

Tavis: Yeah, I’m sure.

Gurira: He’s happy with that. But yeah, so I witnessed it around me. I definitely witnessed the pressures of tradition on many people I grew up around, and family friends and relatives alike.

It was very much in the culture around me. There was a lot of traditional pressures. But there’s such an evolution that’s been happening over the last 20 years as I’ve been growing up, of seeing how people are still navigating it, but still feel the pressure, sometimes put it on themselves.

Sometimes you can walk a little away from that pressure, but you actually haven’t given yourself permission because you didn’t see your mother do it or your mother’s mother do it.

That’s sort of the navigation of this character. What do you choose for yourself, or what do you just look back and say, well, that’s what they did, and that’s what I have to do – or is it?

Tavis: You made the point earlier in this conversation, Danai, that you came back here to go to college. You’re born in Iowa, your parents take you back to Zimbabwe, you and your family, to raise you there, you come back here for college.

God knows that we have a whole lot of work to do vis-à-vis K through 12 in this country. We need some real, meaningful education reform – another conversation for another show, another time.

But it is still the case that around the world, people claw and dig and beg and cajole, whatever they have to do to get here to go to our colleges and universities. We’re still the envy of the world when it comes to that level of education.

Gurira: Absolutely.

Tavis: So your parents, having lived here, sent you back here, brought you back here to get you a good college education. Since you go back and forth to Zimbabwe even now, is that still the case? Are people still clamoring on the continent to get here to get an education?

Gurira: Absolutely. It’s exciting, actually, because every single year I get the list form the U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe of all the Zimbabweans who are coming here going, they’re going to be going to Stanford, they’re going to be going to Yale.

I’m a playwright at Yale, so I would go there and when my plays are being done there and I meet all these Zimbabweans who are there, it’s kind of amazing. It still does happen.

There still is definitely that desire to do better than what’s come before, so you want to go to a place where you can do better, and the beauty is when people, they focus on investing back.

One girl I knew, her sister was my classmate in Zimbabwe, and I saw her at Yale a couple of years ago. She said, “I’m going home. I’m going home when I’m done, and I’m investing everything I’m getting here back to there.”

So the understanding that this is still the place where you learn a great deal, where you meet a great number of people who will enhance your skills and allow you to create a standard that you can then take home and bring to others, it’s still very much in place.

Tavis: You’re very modest. You’re not just a playwright, you are an Obie-winning playwright, which is significant. Tell me about the turn to start writing the material that you want to see out there.

Gurira: Yeah, it really was necessity being the mother of invention. Like I was honestly just looking for things to perform. I was looking for monologues to audition with.

I was looking for things like that, and I just couldn’t find stuff that told the stories that I thought were fascinating to tell. I fell in love with a lot of Western playwrights.

I love Chekov, of course love Shakespeare, love Ibsen, love Shaw, and there were also times I was like, “But there’s an African version of these types of stories.”

I could see how Chekov must have loved his people and just was like sitting there and watching them and going, “Oh my God, my people, my people. I got to write about these people.” (Laughter)

That’s how I feel about my own people. So it really just propelled me to really feel like I need to start writing stories. Initially, it was just like I need something to perform that actually kind of speaks to my strengths and speaks to women I know of and stories I think are important to tell.

Then it became something bigger than that. It became – there’s an absence of, there’s a dearth of stories that come from the complex – a lot of my plays are about Africans that come from that complex African portrayal and experience and mind-set.

I think that there’s something so interesting to say and to see about us, and so I just wanted it to be seen and heard. I just thought, why not see these stories as much as we see everybody else’s?

Tavis: If you could top-line – I know obviously there’s a deep answer to this, but if you could top-line for me what is it about the portrayal of Africans? Because Hollywood has its own way of portraying all – they portray Cubans a certain way and Mexicans a certain way and that happens around the globe with regard to how Hollywood portrays various peoples.

What are they still not getting about the complexity of African characters? That’s always a strange question, because it’s the biggest continent in the world and every African isn’t every African.

But give me some sense of what they’re still not getting in Hollywood about the portrayal of African people.

Gurira: We’re at a moment really where it’s just really right on the surface of it. I don’t think there’s really been that much of an investment yet in telling the African story in Hollywood, and that’s okay.

It’s a far ways away, I get it. There’s a lot of stories to tell that are right here on this soil, so I understand that. But the next step, I think, if you really want to tell the African story, is to facilitate the African writer.

Because I think that’s where the disconnect happens, is when the people who actually write the story are not deeply connected to the story they’re telling. It’s that sort of understanding that you can see reading Chekov.

You see that he gets his people, and that bubbles through and it makes it live through generations. He wrote that in the 1800s, and we’re still performing it today.

That type of tangibility of life, where things get so culturally specific that they become universal, that’s the great story. That’s how it’s structure. Cultural specificity results in universality.

But if you are not getting the cultural specificity, then how are you going to actually get to the universal ability to tell it? That is the trickiness, because Africa is so generally underrepresented, constantly misrepresented.

It’s humungous, it’s 900 million people, it’s the second-largest continent on the planet. There’s such a variety of stories and experiences, but it’s also very easy to nitpick to things that are very on the surface, quick, easy, spectator-type news blips type things.

Then that becomes what you go to, because it’s easy. But it’s actually – now it’s kind of we’re at a point where guys, it’s just not okay anymore. We’re in the 21st century.

There are multiple, massive, award-winning novelists from the continent who’ve written amazing stories that can easily be adapted, and the story is already right there, the cultural specificity is on the page.

We’re at a point where there’s no reason to nitpick in the sense of just going for what’s really basic and on the surface and easy. We’re at the point where it’s very easy to go in and get the authentic story.

The question is who’s going to invest in that, and that is the next question for Hollywood is are we willing to actually make that investment in telling the truly authentic African story, because they’re there.

Tavis: Yeah.

Gurira: The writers are there, and the access is there. It’s a question of making the investment.

Tavis: So the other issue I want to raise here – it’s one thing to tell the story, and it’s still yet another thing to shoot the story.

Gurira: Right.

Tavis: I think you know where I’m going with this. The cinematographer on this project, “Mother of George,” has received some wonderful awards and a lot of recognition for the way he shot this particular film.

I suspect that some people don’t even think about this when they go watch movies. You see cinematography honored at the Academy Awards and other shows where talent is being honored in this town.

But specifically where Black people are concerned, where Africans are concerned, there is a way to shoot them that puts them in their best light, just like other folk want to be seen in their best light.

I get this every day on a much smaller scale. I’m on TV here, of course. I have a makeup artist you may have met in the hallway named Sheila, Sheila Evers, a Black woman.

I’ve been doing this show for 10 seasons now, and Sheila, for the longest time, would scream and yell and jump up and down and stomp her feet because she was saying to the lighting people, “You’re not making Tavis look his best. You can’t put the same gel, the same color on him that you put on other people, because you’ve got to make Tavis look” – and God knows I need some help.

But she was trying to help me out, saying – stop shaking your head. (Laughter) But Sheila was saying, “You’ve got to put Tavis in his best light, and Tavis ain’t Larry King, Tavis ain’t Jay Leno, Tavis ain’t David Letterman. You’ve got to make Tavis look his best, and here’s how you make a Black man look good on television.”

I say all that to say I get that on a smaller scale, but when it comes to movies, that’s a much bigger thing, and there are millions of dollars, of course, that go into this.

So tell me something about why your cinematographer on this project is getting all these awards, and people are saying the way he shot these Africans is delicious and beautiful.

Gurira: Well, Bradford Young, he’s an amazing, amazing man, and he worked very closely also with Andrew. From day one he would have me come out and he should say, “Stand against this wall.” It would be some, like, red wall in Brooklyn.

Then he’d throw some fabric on me and he’d have his team. He was creating a very clear vision from day one. He wanted to really get what my skin tone was, what our skin was, how to actually light things.

Him and Andrew, when they talk about it, you’re like, how – they’re quite a team. They were pulling from all types of things. Of course, Andrew’s Yorba, so pulling from all that sort of – their colorful beauty, which they’re the most colorfully beautiful Africans, I think.

Tavis: They have a nice palette, yeah.

Gurira: Oh my goodness. So pulling from that, and then pulling from several different artists, visual artists, and really planning something very interesting as they put together this story, and really pushing each other to do it in a way that we’re going to – like I didn’t know sometimes they were just focusing on the hand or on the arm or just on skin.

Some people were like, “What was that about?” Then someone from Haiti said to me, “That was focused just on,” she said it was like an ankle or a wrist, and she said, “I saw my aunt. I saw my aunt in Haiti’s skin. I saw the exact wrinkles of her wrist,” and I thought, amazing.

That sort of celebration of the African sense of self on screen you don’t see very often. So I think they really focused from the very beginning of just celebrating the specificity of these people.

The beauty is, as we were saying, that resonates into something universal, where everyone kind of appreciates it because you’re seeing something beautiful being highlight, and something rarely highlighted get highlighted.

So they really had an amazing vision. That scene that was actually just shown, I just have a quick story, because it was just such a beautiful moment of collaboration between the cinematographer and the filmmaker.

Because they shot that as, like, a master. I’m so used to cutting in and all of the stuff where you go into for actual coverage. They were like, nope, we’re going to do this one master and just keep doing the scene.

It’s a long scene, as far as scenes go. It was just like, I’m kind of wondering, we’re not going, we’re not cutting – they weren’t cutting in. They were shooting it from actually, it’s from the reflection of a mirror, and then halfway through the scene he just shifts, and then you realize oh, I was looking through a mirror the whole time.

It’s amazing. Finally, Andrew was debating whether or not she was going to, like, do the more traditional thing and cut in for coverage, and Bradford was, like, coming up from the side. He’s like, “Don’t sell out, Andrew. Don’t sell out.” (Laughter)

Andrew’s like, “I can’t sell out. I can’t sell out. Let’s just keep doing it this way.”

Tavis: We’ll keep it the way it is, yeah.

Gurira: So they really challenged each other to do it differently, do it their way, not the way they’ve seen everyone do it for a generation, but actually to do it in a way that was truly from their perspective.

As an actor, I actually really enjoyed it. Those sort of choices allowed us to just run our scenes without worrying about that sort of cut-in stuff, and really just find the flow of things, knowing that there’s so much being taken care of in terms of exactly how they’ve lit it, how they’re shooting it, what angle they’re coming at it from. So it was really special.

Tavis: I’ve only got a minute to go, so for all those “Walking Dead” fans on this stage and folk who lined the hallways because they heard you were coming to day from “The Walking Dead,” and all the folk who are watching – I don’t even know why I’m going to ask you, because I know you’re going to tell me nothing about the new season, (laughter) because y’all can’t give nothing away.

But what do you want to say to your “Walking Dead” fans? Take it away.

Gurira: Oh, wow. We love you; we love “Walking Dead” fans. (Laughter) It’s an amazing thing to be a part of. Just an insanely amazing crew, amazing cast, and stunning writers.

So the fans, the love is amazing. It’s really the most unusual thing to be a part of, and it’s really exciting to do it. I’m excited for the next season. It’s so full of beautiful character stuff and crazy action that you won’t be able to predict, so I think people are going to enjoy it.

Tavis: Okay. So one last time – Jonathan, put up on Mikey’s camera – thank you. One last time for those who want to know correctly how to pronounce your name, say it so beautifully once more, please.

Gurira: Danai Gurira.

Tavis: There you go. (Laughter)

Gurira: But you were good.

Tavis: I tried, but it’s not as nice as you. In “The Walking Dead,” “Mother of George” is the new independent film (unintelligible) now starting with Danai. Good to have you on the program, Danai.

Gurira: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: And congratulations on all your success.

Gurira: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Gloria

    Most inspiring, thought provoking and intellectual interview I have seen in quite a while.

  • Cathy

    Wow, why isn’t this interviewer more well known!!!? If more black creatives knew of him….arrrghhh! Awesome!

Last modified: October 12, 2013 at 6:07 pm