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Up close with Danai Gurira

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I MET Danai Gurira in a small New York City bistro where we discussed her craft. She talks openly about her success and increasing visibility on the big screen.

Report by Wadzanai Mhute, Own Correspondent

Gurira was in New York where she was one of 10 artists awarded the $50 000 Whiting Award for Writers. The award is the latest in a long list of recognitions for her work. The United States-born, Zimbabwe-raised Guriria talks about acting, playwriting and theatre with such passion and intensity, it’s not hard to see why she is successful.

Gurira is currently based in Los Angeles where she is filming the TV show The Walking Dead. She was cast as Michonne in the series based on a comic book about a group of survivors in a world filled with zombies.

The popular HBO show currently in its third season features Gurira in the role of a warrior woman whom she says is formidable and complicated, but has a good heart. Gurira trained hard for the very physical role, which requires her character to wield a sword called a katana.

The artist says she can relate to Michonne as she has always been a dominant personality. She describes herself as tough, assertive and opinionated. Like her TV persona, Gurira says it is not easy for her to be vulnerable.

The Walking Dead was popular at the New York Comic Con, an annual popular culture convention which offers the latest in comics, video games and movies among other arts. Gurira’s celebrity status has been elevated by her role on the show which led her and fellow cast members to attend this year’s event where they met fans of the book and show.

She says the attention from fans has been great and they are happy because of the character which they have embraced.

Gurira’s award-winning plays In the Continuum, Eclipsed and The Convert among others have kept her busy. In addition, she guest starred in several TV shows including Law and Order, Lie to Me and Treme as well as movie roles in The Visitor, Restless City and MaGeorge.

Of all these roles, I wondered what challenged her more. Gurira says playing Michonne is challenging with 13-hour days of filming, but she is having a great time with amazing people.

“The Walking Dead is very intense. It takes all you have, all your physical and mental strength. You have to nail what’s needed. It feels like theatre because it’s very physical,” she explained.
The show, she says, has both action and humanity.

“It’s a great product to be a part of, perfect match for me.”
She is also excited about her upcoming title role in MaGeorge, a movie about a Nigerian woman grappling with her marital status when she joins her husband in the US.

The film explores the burden of marriage in the American society. MaGeorge tries to find her own voice in this world while dealing with fertility. The movie is based on a story from South Africa and Gurira says she can relate to the story as she has seen people in Zimbabwe who have faced the same issues raised in the film.

I was also curious to know what her favourite character was out of all her roles. Gurira responded by saying it was difficult to decide because “it is like choosing between your children”. She says like your children, you love them all in different ways.

“They all pull different parts of humanity. Joy is being able to find the character within. The roles are equally enjoyable, but not equally fun and as an artist you find the joy to be in someone else’s head.”

Despite her busy schedule of filming, Gurira is also working on several projects including writing a play titled Familiar, about a first generation African family living in the US.

She is also completing a trilogy about Zimbabwe which began with the historical play, The Convert.

Gurira talked about starting an arts collective in Zimbabwe called Almasi with Patience Tawengwa, a film and theatre director. Almasi focuses on arts education to raise the level of professionalism.

“Zimbabwe has great writers and visual artists, but theatre is in need of development. High standards need to be set which people have to learn to match.”

Gurira warns that artists cannot expect to excel in the field without an education and one cannot take shortcuts.

She says talent has to be developed in a sustainable and fruitful way with theatre being an industry from which many can prosper and produce a lot of employment.

“Zimbabwe has to train as well as embrace dramatic arts education and professionalism.”

She received a Master of Fine Arts from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where she studied for three years and additionally dedicated more years in developing as an artist.

“Anyone who wants to venture into the dramatic arts, needs to be certain with career choice. If you are really called to be an artist you cannot just be interested in being famous, you will need to seek an apprenticeship to develop your craft,” Gurira said.

“If you are talented, people will tell you, but have to be an artist,” she added.

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