Danai Gurira's Broadway acting debut is really just gravy. The 29-year-old Zimbabwean-American's expressive, commanding features are getting her some nice gigs—in last year's movie The Visitor and in a beloved new revival of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone—but it's her work as co-star and co-creator of the 2006 Pulitzer finalist In the Continuum, about women living with AIDS in Africa and L.A., that's drawn the most attention. Two more documentary-ish plays about African struggles will soon follow. In Zimbabwe she's a hometown celebrity of near-Obaman proportions; in New York she's just an unusually precocious NYU grad. She spoke with Boris Kachka.
In Joe Turner you only appear onstage in the last five minutes, but your absence looms over the rest of production. Did you audition for the role of this play's Godot figure?
I came in initially for [a larger role] but the director felt I had the—I can't remember the term he used—a certain type of emotional power that he needed for Martha.
Actually, I think he did use that word!
Your playwriting focuses exclusively on Africa, though you spent part of your childhood in the U.S. Do you see August Wilson occupying similar territory, even though the African-American experience is so different?
My parents were here in the sixties, part of that generation that came here, like Obama's father, for college. So I grew up, even in Zimbabwe, with a picture of Martin Luther King that he'd signed for my mother in the house. Roots to Beloved to James Baldwin, all that stuff was in my home. And I love August Wilson's approach. He believes that black people are Africans in America, and he looks at cultural differences based on that fact.
You must have really dug Dreams From My Father.
It floored me how he has such an understanding of the African post-colonial experience. I was like, Oh my gosh, this is my president! I always used to say hybrids would rule the world, people who have an understanding of many cultures and can relate to them with ease. And then along came Obama.
I read that you were celebrated as a hero when you brought The Visitor to a film festival in Zimbabwe.
It was a big deal, but you have to realize how small Harare is. It's a city of two million and not that many exciting things happen. It was a beautiful thing in that regard, because I truly believe Zimbabweans don't lack anything; we can create whatever we want. My brain gets sharper every time I go home. Zimbabweans are so smart and witty and able to weave together tons of situations and experiences into terminologies that are just utterly original. We had a higher literacy rate than the U.S. until 1995. So we're kind of a nerdy country, actually.
Will you always be writing about Africa?
To me, for right now, it's where my passion is, it's where my juice is. And there's just so much to get done that excites me. I don't question it. I just go with it.
Do you think that what you do is journalism?
To an extent. I create fictional narratives, but it's based on literal people. My play Eclipsed is about Liberian women, and when I was in Liberia, I was just sitting around and talking to people, and then I did one interview—the story was so devastating that I was incapacitated for a little while. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. So I had to create a certain type of distance, and not get too lost in the pain of it. I had to do what I realize journalists must do.