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07 Feb 2014 00:00
Zombie from Zimbabwe: Danai Gurira as Michonne in The Walking Dead. (Frank Ockenfels, AMC)
Danai Gurira is perhaps best known for playing the dreadlocked zombie slayer Michonne on the record-breaking United States television show The Walking Dead. But she was in Zimbabwe late last year for rather more cultured reasons: as a playwright to stage a production of her third play, The Convert.
Since her character debuted in the finale of the second season of TWD in March 2012, Gurira's has become one of the more recognisable faces on television.
Yet, as we walk around Avondale shopping centre in Harare, skipping over potholes filled with summer rain, it seems Gurira is barely noticed.
Furthermore, zombie killing couldn't be further from her thoughts as she talks with engaging enthusiasm about bringing The Convert to Zimbabwe and also the work she and co-founder Patience Tawengwa are setting out to do through their organisation Almasi Collaborative Arts.
Tawengwa, who has an equally strong grounding in the dramatic arts, formed Almasi with Gurira in late 2011, in response to a lack of sustainable structures in Zimbabwean performing arts.
"Our ultimate vision is something similar to the Market Theatre, where there is a conservatory, where there are theatres and constant collaboration; a place where artists who want training, who want their work to be considered can go."
Gurira and Tawengwa also want to take the idea beyond the walls of the theatre, training artists to manage their own finances and exploring the advantages of unionising.
Gurira is in two unions in the US: the Screen Actors Guild and Equity.
"We want the Zimbabwean Chekhov, we want the Zimbabwean Ibsen, we want the Zimbabwean Shakespeare, but we have to invest in them, and we have to facilitate the development and showcase the works. So that's what we're trying to do."
Gurira was born in Grinnell, Iowa, but spent much of her childhood in Harare, where her father was a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe. It's on the stage – and with a pen in her hand – that she seems to feel most at ease. "I love theatre, I think there's a power to it," she says. "Theatre I can do from A to Z pretty much, I can run the show. Screen? Heck no. I have tons to learn."
That's not to say that Gurira's stage work hasn't informed her on-screen performances. In 2007, she made a "life-changing" trip through Liberia to research her second play, Eclipsed. "Michonne relates most specifically with that play, which deals with women in the Liberian civil war," says Gurira. "That parallel attracted me to TWD from the start. One of the things I love about Michonne is she represents to me that woman of war who transforms in accordance to the circumstance and becomes her own army. It does connect with the ideals I tend to explore in my plays; women who are powerful and complex."
The Convert, which has garnered an array of awards, also involves itself with such female characters. It's a study of the pathology of colonialism and a critique of hegemonic patriarchy across the cultural divide that also manages a light touch and clear traction with a modern audience.
It's been staged all over the US, and there are rumoured plans to take it to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year. First, though, it had to go home.
"It was always a plan to bring that play home," Gurira says. "Everything I write, I have to bring home. It's a great irony that I get them done in the States first, like with In The Continuum [her first play]. It did really well there, and then Zimbabwe was like: ‘Oh, you write plays? Can we see the play?' Oh, now you care! Sometimes that's what it takes, but it doesn't matter. The point is that they come home."
There's plenty more to talk about, but Gurira has to dash to prepare to host the final showing of The Convert, on Christmas Eve – but first she has to squeeze in some quick grocery shopping.
As she leaves, I'm struck by the incongruity of this elegant, urbane actor – who has walked red carpets at premieres and chaired comic-cons, who has countless fan pages on Facebook, fan-based Twitter feeds and Instagram accounts – pushing a modest supermarket trolley of groceries over a rattle-trap Zimbabwean car park.
But she doesn't look out of place. She looks perfectly at home.
The Walking Dead airs on Mondays at 10pm on Fox Channel 125
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