"It would take lifetimes upon lifetimes to tell all the stories I want to,” says playwright Danai Gurira. Her latest play, “The Convert” has a “rolling premiere,” directed by Emily Mann, beginning at McCarter Theater, Friday, January 13, through Sunday, February 12, then at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and finally at the Kirk Douglas Theater, part of the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. Set in the 1890s in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, “The Convert” tells the story of a young woman “trying to self empower in a very tricky situation, attempting to make choices and figure out who she is in a world where she is being pulled in different directions,” says Gurira in an interview backstage at McCarter during rehearsals.
The young woman’s family traditions that would force her into a marriage, now colored by economic considerations, are in opposition to the religious beliefs that she espouses. “The Catholic Church and many other churches were very active in South Africa at this time and had been long before Cecil John Rhodes (yes, the one the prestigious scholarship is named for) and his company came to the area. The churches became tricky bedfellows with the economic colonists,” says Gurira. A young African Catholic catechist man stands with her when a crisis occurs in her life.
Gurira had to give me a little history/geography lesson. At the time her play is set, the British South African Company, headed by Rhodes, was locking down that area as a colony. “They thought there was gold there, which there wasn’t, but a lot of minerals and a very strong agricultural economy to profit from. They were enacting a full-fledged colonization.” Gurira obviously has no love for Rhodes, as there is some honesty as well as humor in her voice as she says that Zimbabweans would like to exhume his body and send it back to Britain.
Born in the United States, where her African-native parents both worked at Grinnell College (her father as a chemistry professor; her mother as a librarian), she is the youngest of four children, all born in Iowa. However, with the independence of Zimbabwe, the family returned home to Africa. She was taught by colonial descendants from first grade through high school. “It was a British education system. I studied Shakespeare, Blake, Jane Austen, Chaucer. We didn’t touch African literature. I wasn’t taught about the land I was standing on.”
Gurira came back to the United States to begin her undergraduate college career at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she was actively involved with theatre all during college, but chose not to make it her major. Instead, she majored in psychology. “I focused on sociological aspects of psychology: gender, race, things like that, and how their effects can cause psychological shifts.” Certainly this choice has enriched her ability as a performer and as a writer.
During college she also set about remedying that huge gap in the literature she had been given to read as a child in Africa, and began to read as much African literature as possible. However, she still has a particular fondness for George Bernard Shaw and says that “The Convert” has shades of “Pygmalion.” “What Higgins does to Eliza is kind of what Britain did to its colonies,” she says. “And it still happens. Higgins does it for fun. But the idea of saying `let’s take these people and make them more like us, give them our language and our manners’ still prevails in Zimbabwe today. I grew up with that.”
In 2005 I first saw Gurira at a small Off Broadway theater where she and Nikkole Salter performed “In the Continuum,” a play they had written together. It was final project as they completed the three-year MFA program from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She had her eye on this from the time she began the program because of a unique opportunity called “Free Play,” which provides professional support to student work. I don’t think Gurira realizes how amazing her success with this was. But how many graduate students, even if they get their work mounted professionally, which is rare, go on to win a number of prestigious awards, as Gurira has, including the John Gassner Award presented by the Outer Critics Circle?
Charles Isherwood wrote in his New York Times review: “A pair of fiercely talented young women, Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, are both the authors and performers of the new play `In the Continuum,’ a kaleidoscopic portrait of two black women — one a middle-class wife and mother in Zimbabwe, the other a 19-year-old at loose ends in Los Angeles — whose lives are suddenly upended by H.I.V. diagnoses.”
Gurira has been involved with theater since she was a child, remembering that when she appeared in a play in the fourth grade, the headmaster complimented her as “a very good actor.” She took that to heart. In the seventh grade, she got to play her first leading role, an old man. During her teen years, she was part of a group called “Rep Teens.” “It’s still in existence and continues to be very neo-colonial — run by white Zimbabweans. They do no African plays, keeping everything very European, weird stuff like `The King and I.’” (I guess “weird” is an appropriate word for blacks playing whites playing Asians.) She also was part of the Children’s Performing Arts Workshop where she got a taste of creating plays. However, it wasn’t until the end of her college days that she began to create her own characters. “There weren’t any contemporary African stories in any books. And I said, `hey, wait a minute.’ That’s what led me to write. I just couldn’t find what I wanted to perform.”
The second play she wrote, “Eclipse,” was developed through a grant that McCarter helped her receive. She also had workshops of the play at McCarter before its premiere at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, D.C., and Yale Repertory Theater. With that grant, she traveled to Liberia, on the east coast of Africa, to research the women there who had been buffeted about by the civil wars. Another grant sent her back to her home of Zimbabwe to add research for “The Convert.” She has been significantly supported by McCarter and is currently a Hodder Fellow at Princeton.
She did not act in “Eclipse” nor will she appear in “The Convert.” “I prefer sitting back and watching my play rather than getting up to do my own play. I try to make sure I don’t lose control as I’m a bit of a control freak. I would never sit back and watch something go the way I know it’s not best. However, I love to see people bring things to it that make it better and richer.” Even early in the rehearsal process when we spoke, Gurira had praise for director Emily Mann who has been involved with the play since its early development. “She’s amazing in that. Something she came up with just now for the beginning of the play, the first image the audience will see, wasn’t what I had envisioned, but it enriches the play. It’s exciting.”
Her career as a playwright is busy; however acting projects still pop up. She made her Broadway debut in the revival of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” in April, 2009. More recently, she won the 2011 Joe A. Callaway Awards presented by the Actors’ Equity Foundation, honoring the best performances in a professional production of a classic play, for playing Isabella in “Measure for Measure” last summer in the Public Theater’s production in Central Park. “Isabella was the role I never knew I wanted. I had never even read it until I auditioned. I get surprised by what finds me or what I find. That role definitely found me. I didn’t plan to do theater last summer. I was going to write.”
And there are still roles to be played. She would love to play any of Shaw’s heroines. “I’ve yet to see them done to my satisfaction,” she adds. “I would also love to play Nora in `A Dolls House.’ There’s something very interesting to me about her and where she ends up. There are some women, especially in Chekhov plays, which I want to perform, but I have to wait about 20 years.”
And there are the plays to write. “The Convert” is the first of a planned trilogy. “I am looking at the progression of Zimbabwe during the 20th century; maybe there is a play for each decade. There’s such interesting stuff. Will I do 10? I can’t hold myself to that. Definitely three. That’s all I can promise myself today.”
We talked just before Christmas and she was leaving the next day to fly to Florida to spend the holiday with family members at her sister’s home. When “The Convert” moves west, she will as well, finally settling for a while in Los Angeles. “There are a couple of things I’m working on. I’m interested in writing for the little screen.” (Never heard of television referred to that way.)
There are also other plays that she is contracted to write. She says, “The west coast may be a calmer place to be.” When I am shocked by this comment, she explains, “Well, if I were in LA, at least I would be in a car. I was out yesterday in Manhattan trying to get a cab and freezing. No cab. In LA, even in traffic, I’d be warm. There are things I want to learn about the screen. I’m going to try it out.” I believe her when she says, “My motto since I was 15 was work hard, play hard.”
The Convert, McCarter Theater (Berlind), 91 University Place, Princeton. Previews start Friday, January 13. Opening night Friday, January 20. Through Sunday, February 12. World premiere of Danai Gurira’s new play set in the region that would become Zimbabwe circa 1895. Directed by Emily Mann. $20 to $60. 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org.