African Global Excellence: Honouring Danai Gurira.

19 Feb

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Danai Jekesai Gurira
I have to be honest the first time I had encountered Danai Gurira’s work was last Friday event at the premier of Black Panther in South Africa. Danai plays the role of Okeye I Marvels. Black Pantehr.

In my series of saluting black excellence within the arts, I have decided to research and educate myself on who this powerful screen goddess is. To my great excitement, she is of Zimbabwean ancestry, who speaks four languages: French, Shona, basic Xhosa, and English.

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So who is Danai?

Danai was born in Grinnell, Iowa, to Josephine Gurira, a university librarian, and Roger Gurira, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville. Her parents moved to the United States from Zimbabwe, in 1964. She is the youngest of four siblings; Shingai and Choni are her sisters and Tare, her brother, is a chiropractor. Gurira lived in Grinnell until December 1983, when at age five she and her family moved back to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, after the country gained independence.
She attended high school at Dominican Convent High School. Afterwards, she returned to the United States to study at Macalester College, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology. Gurira also earned a Master of Fine Arts in acting, from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Danai the playwright:
As a playwright, she has been commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre Group, Playwrights Horizons, and the Royal Court.
She co-wrote and co-starred in the off-Broadway play In the Continuum, which won her an Obie Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and a Helen Hayes Award for Best Lead Actress. In December 2011, In the Continuum commemorated World AIDS Day 2011. The play, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe, was performed at Harare’s Theatre and featured the story of two women who were navigating the world after contracting the AIDS virus.
In 2009, Danai made her acting debut on Broadway in August Wilson’s play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone playing Martha Pentecost. Danai received the Whiting Award for an emerging playwright in 2012. In January 2015, Familiar, a play written by Danai and directed by Rebecca Taichman, opened at Yale Repertory Theatre. It later premiered Off-Broadway in New York at Playwrights Horizons. The play is about family, cultural identity, and the experience of life as a first-generation American, and Danai has said that it was inspired in part by family and friends of hers.

In 2015, Lupita Nyong’o starred in Gurira’s 2009 play, Eclipsed, Off-Broadway at The Public Theater. It was announced the play would move to Broadway in 2016 at the John Golden Theatre. It was the first play to premiere on Broadway with an all female and black cast and creative team. The play is set in war-torn Liberia and focuses on three women who are living as sex slaves to a rebel commander, and is about how they deal with this difficult situation. The play was inspired by a photograph of female fighters and their tale of survival. She received the 2016 Sam Norkin Award, for Eclipsed. Eclipsed was also nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play, and won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design in a Play.

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Danai on film and television.

Danai starred in the 2007 film The Visitor, for which she won Method Fest Independent Film Festival Award for Best Supporting Actress. She has appeared in the films Ghost Town, 3 Backyards, My Soul to Take, and Restless City, as well the television shows Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Life on Mars, and Law & Order. From 2010 to 2011, she appeared in the HBO drama series Treme.
In 2013, Danai played a lead role in director Andrew Dosunmu’s independent drama film Mother of George, which premiered at 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Gurira received critical acclaim for her performance as a Nigerian woman struggling to live in the United States. In June 2013, Danai won the Jean-Claude Gahd Dam award at the 2013 Guys Choice Awards.
In January 2016, it was announced Gurira had been cast as Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, in All Eyez on Me, a biopic about the rap star.

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The Walking Dead.
In March 2012, Danai joined the cast of their horror-drama series The Walking Dead, where she plays Michonne, a relentless, katana-wielding character who joins a close-knit group in an apocalyptic world. Together they are forced to relentlessly fight flesh-eating zombies and certain of the few surviving humans, some of whom are even more diabolical and dangerous than the zombies themselves.

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Activism
In 2008 Danai appeared at the Global Green Sustainable Design Awards to read a letter written by a New Orleans native displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
In 2011 she co-founded Almasi Arts Inc., an organisation dedicated to continuing arts education in Zimbabwe. Gurira currently serves as the Executive Artistic Director.
In 2015 Danai signed an open letter begun by the ONE Campaign. The letter was addressed to Angela Merkel and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, urging them to focus on women as they serve as the head of the G7 in Germany and the AU in South Africa respectively. The following year Gurira founded the non-profit organization Love Our Girls, which aims to highlight the issues and challenges that specifically affect women throughout the world. In 2016 Gurira partnered with Johnson & Johnson in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

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