Actor/playwright Danai Gurira was honored last night at the Theatre Communications Group's annual gala, along with producers Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey and the Vilcek Foundation. These were her remarks in accepting the award.
It was never really the plan—becoming an artist. I was going to be a lawyer. I loved words; I loved to spar from a very young age. I loved debating with people, preferably two to three times my age, about any and all topics they would indulge. I was the most ardent 9-year-old lover of the TV show “L.A. Law” you will ever meet. I wanted to be a prosecutor like Gracie Van Owen and go after the bad guys with airtight cross-examinations and well-crafted closing arguments.
This just wasn’t the plan. I can’t quite put my finger on when that all changed. The calling pursued me relentlessly, even when I took up social psychology as my major in college. It crystallized during a semester abroad in South Africa, where I realized that pursuing my joy and my passion was going to be scary, but denying it was something I would never forgive myself for. The goal was simple: Give voice to African women’s stories. Simple. My fear, to be honest, about this profession was how insular I felt it could be. Would I be able to contribute to change, to be an advocate, an activist, if I was locked up in windowless theatre basements most days poring over new pages? Hollywood celebrity was definitely not my speed, it seemed trapped and indulgent. And in theatre, who would experience the stories I tell; who would care?
But storytelling is and will always be a tool for awareness, for social change, for truth and communal reflection. That’s what I finally came to realize and find peace in. But that identity requires protection: protection from the hyper-commercialization of our art, protection from pursuit of trends instead of courageous storytelling, protection from pursuit of celebrity over quality.
What I so appreciate about TCG, why I consider them a part of the village it takes to move forward, to chase down your vision, part of my village, is that they invested in my voice at an early stage. Sure, In the Continuum had happened, but my proposal was a pretty dodgy one: “I want to go to the obscure West African country of Liberia to research women who survived a brutal civil war.” They supported that vision, and Eclipsed was allowed to be birthed. They supported my next vision too, the series of plays about the country of Zimbabwe, my motherland, its identity evolution. They published my works. They facilitated my vision. And for that, I am thankful, as we say in Zimbabwe: tinotenda. Working with them as I try to bring more African voices to the fold, they collaborated with me to bring a fellow from my nonprofit, Gideon Wabvuta, giving him a slot at this year’s annual conference, facilitating more international voices as a result.
Their focus on inclusion, diversity, equality are things that we must all hold dear, especially at this time. We have entered a moment in time where complacency is not an option. There is a deeply heavy mood in the air amongst many. And we know why. When Tuesday happened—ha! Perhaps that should be the name of my next play! When Tuesday happened, I wanted to switch off for three and a half years. I joked at work about finding a recreational drug to take up—me, that square who has never even smoked a joint. What would numb my brain and make me forget while this country changed hands and underwent God knows what type of undoing?
I wanted to not feel.
But then I was convicted to my core by a cousin in London. A WhatsApp chain full of my dearest theatre buddies, who are also my longest-time friends from Zimbabwe—the chain was full of lament, folks who have never lived here feeling the impact as though they were right next door. But Gwinyai broke through that wall of despair with these affecting words:
Have faith, my friends. For me there has never been a better day to stand up for what I believe in. For my beliefs. For my values. To support the oppressed, the vulnerable. The size of the task is laid bare, and while it is a great one, it is certainly not insurmountable. I honestly have never been more up for the fight.
That revived me. And now I am starting to feel ready for the fight too. Now is a time I feel called to do more than I had ever imagined. To put down the smart device and any other distraction guised as a necessity and get back to the bare essentials. Tell stories from the core. Tell stories that scare me to tell, that might come with consequences. Get voices out there—engage, ignite, advocate, agitate, be relentless and fearless, recognize this moment for what it is. A moment we will all be held accountable for by generations to come. Did we find new ways to fight for inclusion, equality, and justice, or did we bury our heads in the sand and wait for the storm to pass? More than ever, our identity is not waiting to be defined—it is demanding definition. Where do I stand and how do I fight for my values?
I think of Odets in the ’30s during the Great Depression, John Kani and Winston Ntshona in 1980s apartheid South Africa. How will we be remembered as a theatre community? With institutions like TCG that facilitate the voices often unheard, that believe in the power of this craft and help bring it to bear, pushing for inclusion and tolerance, we theatremakers have no excuse. We must get to work as never before. This battle ahead is new but very, very old. And we have been deemed worthy of the fight. This call to arms is one I take upon myself. I have received much, and much is therefore expected.
TCG’s support has been one of the key things that have allowed me to see my goals come to fruition, to get my voice and hence the voices of others out into the world. I therefore take this honor tonight as a mandate to do more. To get more stories to the finish line, to facilitate more voices, voices that the world must hear at this time, to use this medium and whatever else I have to garner a path forward, toward a future for all that I hope for.
I now plan to spend these next years working harder than I ever have, and breaking into realms of service and collaboration that I never dreamt to reach. I see tonight’s honor as a calling, a war cry, to dust off the setback and become even resilient. To get my hands dirty and truly become the change I am believing in.
Thank you, TCG, for this honor; it could not have come at a better moment in time. I cherish it as a reminder to those just like that little girl I once was who believed she could take down the bad guys; the woman I am today can work toward truth and change in even the seemingly darkest of times.