The set of The Walking Dead is a difficult place to stand out on Halloween: the zombie quotient is high and the makeup artists are two-time Emmy winners, but nobody rocks a katana and dreadlocks better than Danai Gurira in her role as the steely heroine, Michonne.
This year, however, the actress tried something different. On a break from filming the show in Atlanta, Gurira and her female cast mates posed in makeshift versions of jilbabs like those worn by the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by terror group Boko Haram. Although it was Halloween, the only thing scary about Gurira’s photos was the sad anniversary they marked—exactly 200 days since the girls were taken from their dormitories. On Nov. 2, she tweeted pictures with the caption: “The girls of TWD for the abducted 219 girls of Chibok. We have not forgotten. #BBOG.”
In the months since the kidnapping, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag has made the rounds—from Diddy and Usher to Anne Hathaway and Michelle Obama. Yet, for Gurira, the photos she posted weren’t just a chance to play dress up or join the celebrity bandwagon. They were acts of solidarity.
“People need to speak from what they’ve learned and not try to speak for others,” she tells me over tea in mid-November, after wrapping filming of the fifth season of The Walking Dead.
A week before the photo shoot with her fellow actresses, Gurira learned firsthand about the Chibok schoolgirls’ plight when she met one of the girls at a private women’s conference held inside Google’s Washington D.C. offices and organized by Bono’s international anti-poverty lobbying group, ONE. Sponsored by a nonprofit campaign called the Education After Escape Fund, the brave Nigerian teenager—dressed in a wig, sunglasses and using the pseudonym “Saa”—sat before the crowd and told her personal story about the harrowing hours after her abduction. Saa talked about how she and a classmate jumped off the back of a pickup truck in the dead of night and after hiding for a day in the bush, they met a shepherd who eventually rescued them and returned her to her parents. Saa is now navigating a new life in America as an incognito boarding school student.
Getting an education shouldn’t be so risky, but 36-year-old Gurira—born in Iowa to Zimbabwean parents—says she understands why the African girls put their lives on the line to do it. She also appreciates the importance of providing young girls strong role models, onscreen and off. Fans love her nuanced portrayal of a sword-slinging zombie killer on TV, but many of them may not know that behind the scenes, she’s a different kind of warrior—an activist and playwright who is dedicating her career to amplifying the stories of contemporary African women.
“Several years ago, when I was looking for monologues to audition with, I couldn’t find anything,” Gurira says. “I had to create plays out of necessity, because African women deserved a voice and a place on the stage.”
This fall, while shooting The Walking Dead on location in Atlanta, Gurira’s award-winning drama about a South African Catholic zealot, The Convert, was staged at the Hattiloo Theatre in Memphis. It is one of many acclaimed productions she’s helmed: her 2006 Off-Broadway AIDS piece, In the Continuum (co-written with Nikkole Salter) received an Obie; 2009’s Eclipsed, which followed the saga of three Liberian sex slaves, played on multiple stages including at the Yale Repertory Theatre; and a new work, Familiar, which explores the experiences of first-generation African Americans, will premiere at Yale in January.
Gurira says she approaches her work with a dual-continent mindset. She is a North American by birth, but an African by experience and heritage. Her mission as a storyteller is to “liberate characters from oppression” by exploring how women cope with issues related to race, religion, and equality. And she abhors poverty porn and victimization. “When we see the African girl or the African woman represented as extremely one-dimensional, it infantilizes us because we are not being received in our full breadth.” Although she’s earned dozens of screen credits for acting (including the 2013 Sundance feature Mother of George, 2007’s The Visitor and the HBO series Treme), Gurira says writing for the stage allows her more freedom to explore her own identity and the disparities between life in the U.S. and Africa.
She moved with her parents to Zimbabwe when she was five and spent a decade of her childhood under the early years of Robert Mugabe’s governance. She attended a multicultural performing arts school and swam competitively. At home, her family’s bookshelves were filled with American writers James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Alex Haley, and a framed photo her mother had taken of Martin Luther King Jr. sat in the living room. But outside those four walls Gurira learned about the challenges of life on the continent, including witnessing what she calls “the onslaught” of HIV/AIDS.
“In Zimbabwe, I saw people suffering, but when I moved back to the States, I only saw the stats. It was so horrifying to me that African people were being reduced to statistics in the minds of those who were the most powerful to help them.”
Back in the U.S., she attended Kofi Annan’s alma mater, Macalester College in Minnesota and later earned her MFA in acting at NYU.
Since then, Gurira has become active in social justice and charitable causes. She co-founded the nonprofit, Almasi Collaborative Arts, which connects artists in Zimbabwe and the U.S. for dramatic arts training and productions. She’s also using her platform to spread awareness about hunger and disease, and appeared this week along with Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, and others in a promotional video to urge action in the fight against Ebola in West Africa.
“I mostly grew up in Africa, looked African, had an African name, but also had this little twangy American accent. I was proud of it,” she says. “But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of being an American, because there is such power in the way that Americans can care and use their voices for others—even others they’ve never met.”
At that same conference in D.C. where she met Saa, Gurira performed an excerpt from Eclipsed. Her experience in writing the play came full circle at the conference as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke via video to the participants about how the strength of women is helping that country cope with the ravages of the Ebola virus. The moment made Gurira think about the time she spent in Liberia in 2008 while researching women’s roles in society—in homes and social and professional settings.
“It‘s a tricky thing to leverage the power you possess when you have a voice that’s amplified,” she says of Eclipsed while reflecting on the conference during our Atlanta meeting. “So how do you make sure that voice is balanced by an infusion of the humanity of those you are speaking for? I don’t believe I can write a play about any place or any people without encountering them, so I had to go there [to Liberia].”
By the time Gurira took her place at the Google podium to read from the play, the audience was primed for emotion. A formerly homeless teen poet named Marquesha Babers slam-dunked a spoken word segment about girls’ empowerment and Clemantine Wamariya, a young Rwandan woman who escaped genocide at age six (to be reunited with her parents later in Chicago on Oprah), gave a soliloquy about surviving the brutality of war. Then Gurira’s words brought to life the personalities and faces of three women held as “wives” of a rebel commander in Liberia’s second civil war. Her performance of Eclipsed garnered a standing ovation, and later she stepped off the stage into a tearful group hug with ladies from the first few rows of seats. It was a tough act to follow.
Now she is approaching the next chapter of her career as equal parts actress, writer and activist, and is motivated to change perceptions of African women. She believes storytelling is the key to connection.
“It’s so important to empower the African storyteller and allow her be heard in a way that is not geared toward being your perfect victim,” she says. “We each have to ask, ‘How do we leverage what we’ve achieved for the better of what’s happening in our own homes of origin?’”