Family Secrets: An Interview with the Playwright
Tim Sanford: You are the daughter of a chemistry professor and a librarian and you diligently majored in psychology. Then you had your own conversion. What led you to the dramatic arts?
Danai Gurira: I started with the dramatic arts in high school in Zimbabwe. But I didn’t plan to pursue it as a career. I couldn't see how to use drama to effect the kind of change I wanted to be a part of. It was when I was in a study abroad program in South Africa called “Arts and Social Change” that my conversion occurred. The irony was that I hadn’t wanted to be in that program; I wanted the one that was really dealing with the politics of the day, but that one was full. In Capetown [sic] I was exposed to so many artists who had worked with their craft to affect apartheid issues, and that’s when I knew I wanted to use art to tell stories of people who are underrepresented.
Then you went to NYU for an MFA, right?
Yes, in acting. My goal was to learn the rules so I would know how to break them. The beauty of that program is that it allows you opportunity and tools to create stories. That’s where I wrote and created my first play. I knew I was going to write something about Zimbabwean women, but I was trying to hone in on the exact topic. I had been performing little pieces I’d been creating—I’d actually performed my protagonist from In The Continuum, though I didn’t realize she was going to be my protagonist. My classmate Nikkole Salter approached me and said, I know you’re going to write about Zimbabwean women and HIV, and I just found out this statistic about African-American women in that plight; I think we should work together on this. And I was like: Oh, that is what I’m going to write about, isn’t it!
When did your parents move to Zimbabwe from Iowa?
We moved in December 1983 and I lived there until I started college in 1997. It was really an idyllic place while I was a kid growing up there. I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but now I know that it was a very stable, modern country with a very strong infrastructure and economy. The issues that Zimbabwe started to face concerning its economy started to hit in the late 1990’s, just after I left, but I would go home every year, so I did see the journey this country was going through.
I wondered if your impulse to start writing The Convert in 2008 was linked to the political crisis Zimbabwe faced that year, including sanctions from the U.S. and E.U.
I was approached by someone at the Washington Post to write about the stuff that was going down in Zimbabwe in 2008. Ultimately I declined. Being from a young nation still grappling with the issues of its own inception is like being in a family where there are secrets that are not shared. There was a lot I didn’t know about the place I called home. It felt like there were people more qualified to talk topically about what was happening in 2008. For me, my medium is storytelling, and I needed to navigate back to that moment of inception. What really went down when the colony was created?
The other thing is that when you’re asked to write an op-ed piece, you’re supposed to have an opinion. And you wrote a play, which sometimes seems like the best medium for expressing ambivalence.
The more I researched Zimbabwe, the more I realized how complicated the landscape is. Representing all the different voices was very important to me, though I don’t have a colonial among the characters. I actually did try to write someone of British descent into the script, but it just didn’t work. I really was speaking to: How is the influence of that power affecting those we do see on the stage?
There’s something invasive about colonization. You’re going to absorb so much about those who colonized you. There’s so much Britishness in Zimbabwe. But at the same time, you have deep wounds connected to that influence, because it wasn’t a chosen influence. It can fuel a pathology that I think is the journey of colonial Africa as a whole to figure a way out of.
I love it when I get jarred, when I’m doing the research. That’s when I know I’m getting somewhere. I can’t write what I thought I was going to write. That definitely happened with The Convert.
Give me an example of something that surprised you.
There’s the complexity of the fact that a lot of women escaped oppressive cultural practices through the Church—getting educated, and some choosing to become sisters of the Church and consequently not marrying. Seeing the details of that, I couldn’t argue simplistically about the Church.
Your Wikipedia entry says: “Personal life: Gurira is a Christian.” But when I ready the play I had a tremendous sense of the critique of Christianity.
Right. Well, yes: Gurira is a Christian. [Laughter.] I did hear about some Christians who felt my play was anti-Christian. And then there were these dear friends of mine, also Christians, who felt like they were all my character Jekesai in the 21st century, which I found fascinating. They told me there are times when you go through initial zealotry around your faith, which can manifest as judgmental, or as oppressive. Then usually you go through a recognition of your own brokenness, and a deepening of your own understanding. Then you get to the point where Jekesai was at the end. And ugly act that one might have said would have repelled her from a relationship with God actually drew her closer. My friends identified with that: You don’t separate from God through darkened acts, even though you do have to face the consequence of them. They thought she had synthesized her faith by the end of the play.
At the same time, I am critiquing religious imposition. Because that’s not what I think Christianity should be about or how it should be represented.
We see how conflicted Jekesai is when Chilford asks her not to go to the traditional funeral rite. She was persuaded that her shared faith with the overlords is going to be the way to a happy ending. But at the end, the blunt cruelty of their response triggers something in her.
I was thinking about the story day and night, and it came to me in the shower, honestly: Oh no, she’s one of those maids. It’s historical fact that women who were working for the colonials participated in that rebellion in that exact way. For Jekesai, it’s the culmination of a pathology. She realizes she has made her lord and God the white man, repelling so many components of who she was. A lot of people experience betrayal in this play, but especially Jekesai: to come forward expecting a certain thing from these people who she’s endowed with godlike characteristics, and to learn they are not worthy of that.
In my notes I wrote down “betrayal,” too: These characters have all betrayed their ancestors in one way or another. It’s a little different for Prudence, though. She says her family abandoned her because of what she was trying to be. Could you talk about her?
I have come across a couple of esteemed reviewers—I’m going to go there—who had the gall to call her anachronistic. I find that a little shocking. Where did they get their understanding of what an African woman was like in 1890? But it was also, to me, very interesting because one of the origins of this play for me was Pygmalion.
I read an article in which you said you were delving into Ibsen and Shaw. Prudence seems like the play’s most Shavian character; she’s so articulate and independent.
The tragedy of Prudence is that she is probably the smartest person in the room at all times, but she’s not a pioneer. Jekesai has the fire to be a leader and to make a different choice, where as Prudence is willing to marry a man she knows is a philanderer because she doesn’t fit anywhere. At that moment there were very few women, especially in what was then Rhodesia, who were as educated as her. She is this mixture of having a strong understanding of everything that’s going on, and hence really feeling the hopelessness. She has such an affinity toward Western traits, languages, education, but at the same time is connected to what it means to be an African. She doesn’t want to go back to living traditionally, but she sees the injustices of what the Westerners are doing.
That’s inspired by history, but it’s also inspired by people I know right now, in many places, Zimbabwe included—people who see all the issues, but the survivalist in them is just trying to find a comfort in the lives they’re living.
There’s a slight comedic aspect to Prudence as well, because she’s so witty—but then circumstances turn on her. It’s the same with Chilford, who’s prone to malapropisms, and he’s an idealist and a purist, which is always a little ridiculous, as Shaw has taught us. Yet at the end of the play, his world is being rocked. What’s the right balance between his comedic aspect and the gravitas he carries?
There is a way to bring an intensity to the character while still allowing those moments of levity to come through; it’s not levity to him, of course. We see the complexity of his beliefs in the scene in which Jekesai has him in a corner, using scripture to argue that there’s no reason she shouldn’t correct Father Bart. He has to find a way to educate her on how they cannot treat white people as equals. But to break down why that makes sense—he’s stumped. He finds a way out of it, but it’s obviously B.S. The crux of it is that he does understand that disparity. He’s chosen his course and he’s decided to stay with it and to ignore the contradictions. That’s what you’re playing. It’s an act of choice over the awareness.
I found the same tonal range in Chancellor. Chilfy is such a stuffed shirt, and you have this beautiful girl walking around, and Chancellor says: Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t given her a poke, how could you stop yourself? But the scene in which Chancellor acts on that becomes increasingly creepy and upsetting. Is that hard to play?
It can get uncomfortable, but that’s the goal. I always insisted, in that scene, that Jekesai must fight. There’s never a moment she’s scared still. That thing she’s capable of at the end of the play, we see it in her at the beginning of the play. It’s unheard of, in Shona culture, for a girl to have the audacity to call her uncle what she calls him to his face, in a room full of people. That fighter in her is what manifests at the end of the play. It’s a refusal to tolerate that level of injustice.
To what degree does personal experience find its way into your plays? Most writers I know cringe at that question, but since you’ve named a character Jekesai and that’s your middle name, I think you’ve invited it.
I’ve never written anything very autobiographical, because I feel like my job is to tell other people’s stories. But I always wonder at my own privilege, in the sense that I was born to academics in the United States. I go to rural Zimbabwe and I look like people who were born in very different circumstances. The difference that geography makes, you know?
In The Convert, it’s not about geography, it’s about time. If I were in Harare, like I was in my formative years, but 130 years ago, who would I have been? That was one of the questions I asked as I started to create this character. How would I have navigated the colonial, religious, cultural, traditional and gender issues—all those things converging and none of them working in my favor? Who would you have been? Who would any of us have been in that moment?
Tim Sanford is the Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons in New York City.
Published in American Theatre Magazine, September 2013. Used by permission of Theatre Communications Group.