Danai Gurira has been called “fierce” and “scary talented” but it’s got nothing to do with her zombie-killing prowess. True, as Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” she wields a mean katana, but it’s her stage work — as an actor and playwright — that has gotten critics buzzing.
Next month, in fact, she has not one but two plays she’s written opening — “Eclipsed” opens on Broadway at the Golden Theatre on March 6, and “Familiar” opens Off-Broadway at Playwright’s Horizons on March 3.
“Eclipsed” is a haunting tale of sex slaves held by a warlord during Liberia’s second civil war, based on interviews Gurira conducted in 2007 with more than 30 Liberian women — rape victims, mothers of kidnapped girls and peace activists. “Familiar” examines the life of a professional, upscale Zimbabwean family living in a wealthy Minnesota suburb.
The latter is more akin to her life. Gurira, 38, was born in Iowa, the daughter of a college librarian and professor from Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia), and the family moved back to their homeland when Gurira was 5. She returned to the United States for college. She’s since written five plays, including the AIDS drama “In the Continuum” (which she starred in and for which she won an Obie Award).
What’s it like seeing two of your plays mounted at the same time? It must seem surreal.
I know, right? It just happened that they came together at the same time. What’s interesting though is that . . . these plays are deeply, deeply different. They both tell stories that are rarely told, and give voice to African women, but you know . . . [She chuckles.] One is set in Minnesota, in the home of an academic and lawyer. The other is in a warlord’s hovel, basically, in the middle of a vicious war. I guess it provides an interesting comparison of my work, and the stories I’m trying to tell.
Was one of them easier to write? I know you’ve said “Familiar” isn’t about your family per se, but it’s similar to your family — immigrants, academics. So one might assume writing that was easier than the play about an African war zone, but maybe that’s not true.
Yeah, it’s interesting — “Familiar” is actually the hardest thing I’ve endeavored to do. There’s something about it that made it a very long journey. I did a lot of rewrites. All plays for me require me to really submit, to break myself down. Realizing the thing I thought I was gonna write about isn’t what I’m gonna write, and having the thing finally reveal itself — ohhh, that’s what I’m gonna write about. That process never just happens, it’s never easy. Now “Eclipsed” was difficult, too. I went to Liberia and was completely transformed by that experience. I came back with this precious cargo, having met these women who entrusted me with their testimonies. And I had to figure out how to weave it all into a specific narrative. That was intense. But there’s something about “Familiar” that has really . . . really . . . stretched me to the limit.
Maybe because it’s closer to home?
Maybe. The play used to be twice as long as it is now, because I know these characters so well, I could just go on and on. [She laughs.] It’s a day in the life of a family with various dysfunctions. There’s something so hilariously absurd about them. Like many families. But it was tough getting at the core of the thing. I used to call it getting at “The David.”
You mean the Michelangelo statue?
Yeah, like when he started doing The David, it was just this big slab of marble.
He had to chip away at it . . .
I’ve been trying to get to The David of “Familiar” for a while. I think we’re there now.
Has acting on “The Walking Dead” influenced your writing?
Watching how my bosses weave together story has inspired me even more to start creating for the screen. There’s something so powerful about threading a story over the course of years, and keeping people intensely engaged . . . but still telling truthful stories, taking characters to unexpected places. That’s been inspiring to witness. In my plays, I want to take people to places that are deeply uncomfortable. But I want to keep them interested. The writers of “The Walking Dead” have managed to do that.
Plus teaching you how to kills dozens of people.
Right. [She laughs.] Well, I don’t kill dozens of people. I kill dead people. Mostly.
Oh, right — excuse me.
I love what I get to do. I get to go to so many places with my character, emotionally and physically. She challenges me all the time — in every way. It’s been a fascinating journey to take.