Actress Danai Gurira’s Quest for Excellence

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha

Harare, Zimbabwe – Award winning 31-year old Zimbabwean-American actress and playwright, Danai Gurira, revealed that her passion for the arts lies in her ability to create and tell stories rather than in the glitz and glam of the industry. Giving a public talk recently, Gurira said she got into the arts at an early and received overwhelming support from her parents which helped to give shape to what her career is today.

“I started working with the arts at a very young age. The arts found me – it’s not often something that you’re encouraged to do at a young age,” she said during a US Public Affairs Food for Thought public talk titled ““Can an African make it in Hollywood or Broadway?”, adding that she did her first play which required her to do an extensive monologue at age six

Gurira, whose 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. propelled her to stardom in the US, said that she is driven by the desire to tell a story and not the shiny lights of the industry.

“There’s a zone you’ve to be able to go into as an artist. When you’re in that zone, you lose a sense of time and space. When people think of Hollywood, all they see is the glitz and glam but I’ve always been motivated by creativity,” said Gurira whose first play In the Continuum received several awards, including the 2006 John Gasner Outer Critics Award for best new American Play and the Global Tolerance Award from Friends of the United Nations in addition to being honored by the US Theatre Hall of Fame.

Gurira, who also won the 2007 Helen Hayes Award for Best Actress in In the Continuum, said that it was in high school at Dominican Convent where she sharpened her interest in drama and where she realized she had the ability to sink herself into a subject with fearlessness. After high school, she left Zimbabwe to go and study psychology in the US. After her first degree, she received her MFA in acting from Tisch, NYU.

“I started to create pieces mainly because I was confused at why the portrayal of Africans was negative in films. I was also inspired by Over the Edge’s play “Born African”. At that time, I created a play about a Zimbabwean rural girl who ventures to a city,” Gurira said. “I needed to attain a certain level of education and then learn how to break the rules. You must have a vision of your artistry. Your work ethic has to be high. You’ve to have a ferocity of energy to survive the industry.”

She added that the trajectory of her career had been unusual because she managed to play African characters that are portrayed in a positive light, adding that she is inspired to tell African women stories.

On the state of the film and acting industry in Zimbabwe, Gurira said that there was a need to instill quality into products that are coming out of the country.

“I think it’s very tricky to say how a country should develop its industry but we should be specific to who we are. I’m always interested in quality over quantity. The need is for excellence because once that is achieved you’ll be less ignored. We must challenge our standards always. I would to see films come out of Zimbabwe that are globally recognizable not because they cater to a global or Western standard but because they’re excellent. The problem is people take the little praise that they get and let their ego be fed like a little monster,” she said.

Gurira added that the fact that Zimbabwe has no real industry offered an opportunity for people to become pioneers.

“There’s no real industry in Zimbabwe so the job of everyone is to be a pioneer because we’ve to create it. You’ve to do more to build the industry. You’re going to have to be a rebel, most artists have to be rebellious, you’ve to be ready to be a pioneer. You’ve to think beyond yourself and don’t wait around for someone,” she said.

On her legacy, Gurira said that she wanted people to pick up her work a hundred years from now and still relate to it.

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