'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Danai Gurira ('Eclipsed')

The actress/playwright explains why she calls herself a "Zimerican," how her part on 'The Walking Dead' relates to her plays about African women and what led Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o to her most acclaimed show yet — seven years ago.
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Danai Gurira

"There had never been a [Broadway] show written, directed and fully performed by women of any color, and that is something that I thought definitely was a barrier that needed to be broken," says Danai Gurira, the playwright whose Tony-nominated play Eclipsed has done just that, as we sit down at New York's iconic Empire Hotel to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast.

"I'm thankful we did that," she adds. "But I also would love for it to be very clear to all that stories that are women-led, stories that are about women, are no less powerful or commercially viable or whatever else than stories about men."

Click above to listen to this episode now, or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. (Past guests include Steven SpielbergAmy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady GagaWill Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Harvey Weinstein, Jane Fonda, Aziz Ansari, Brie LarsonJ.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart and Michael Moore.)

The 38-year-old, who was born in Iowa to Zimbabwean parents and spent most of her childhood in Zimbabwe before returning to America for college and graduate school, is also an actress — she's best known for her portrayal of Michonne on AMC hit The Walking Dead, whom she's played since 2012, and also gave an Obie-winning performance in 2005's off-Broadway production In the Continuum, which she co-wrote; contributed a memorable supporting turn in the 2007 film The Visitor; and made her Broadway debut in 2009's Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

But she's says her life's mission — to which she connects even her Walking Dead character — is sharing with the world stories about women on or from the African continent, which she feels are generally underserved.

"The story of the African," she argues, "can be one-dimensionalized, can be told from a very flimsy perspective, can be told from a very Disney perspective — not that I have anything against Disney. It's about the idea of taking a story that's very dire and making it something light and trite." She continues, "I just want something rich and full and multi-dimensional and fun and scary and dangerous and edgy and complex — I want all those things for the African that I've seen other people receive throughout my lifetime."

This season, two such shows that she wrote were warmly embraced in New York: off-Broadway's Familiar, a story of tensions between Zimbabwean parents and their American-born kids, plus Eclipsed, a story of several women — one played by Gurira's longtime friend, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o — during Liberia's second Civil War, which ran off-Broadway last season and then opened in February uptown, where it will run through June 19. At the end of every performance of the latter, she has the show's stars read — and have the audience repeat back to them — the names of two of the 276 girls kidnapped in Nigeria in 2014 by Boko Haram, hoping to keep a spotlight on their situation.

"My work must be a channel for activism and advocacy," Gurira says. "It's not so that I can have my name on a marquee. It's so that voices can be heard and issues can be given attention and we, as a world, retain our conscience about these issues and realize that we can make changes to this world. We don't have to accept where it is, but we also have to know what it is, in order to do that."

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