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Interview: Danai Gurira ('Mother of George,' 'The Walking Dead') on Telling the Story of Africans in America

Photo of Jai Tiggett By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act August 15, 2013 at 10:45AM

Starring in Andrew Dosunmu's acclaimed Sundance drama Mother of George which opens in theaters next month, playing the katana-wielding Michonne in AMC's The Walking Dead, and continuing to build a thriving career as a playwright, Danai Gurira is a busy woman.
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Danai Gurira

Starring in Andrew Dosunmu's acclaimed Sundance drama Mother of George which opens in theaters next month, playing the katana-wielding Michonne in AMC's The Walking Dead, and continuing to build a thriving career as a playwright, Danai Gurira is a busy woman.  

In Mother of George she plays Adenike, a woman who, after the joyous celebration of her wedding in a traditional Nigerian ceremony, finds herself unable to conceive a child. She then turns down a shocking path to potentially save her troubled marriage and family.  

Gurira made time to speak with Shadow & Act about the film and all that she's working on lately. Though she wouldn't give up many details about what's in store for Michonne, she did give in depth insight into her thoughts on culture and what she wants to achieve as an artist, as well as an update on the TV series she's rumored to be writing.  

SHADOW & ACT: Tell me about preparing for your role in Mother of George 

DANAI GURIRA: It involved spending a lot of time within Nigerian communities in Brooklyn, which are many more than I knew. There was a lot of film watching of traditional Yoruba stories, which were told very differently from Nollywood, but some Nollywood watching too. And then spending a lot of time with a Yoruba woman who was just in from Nigeria and was living with her son and his family. She was really amazing and also provided the food for the film, and her name was also Adenike.  

S&A: Being originally from Zimbabwe, could you make any connections with your own background or was it very different from what you knew? 

DG: It was both. I think the Yoruba have such a fiery pride for their culture, in their dress and how they do their weddings. I don't know if it's because Britain stayed on our soil for so long, but Zimbabweans don't have the same type of colorful beauty going on. We are very alive in our culture, but with traditional weddings we have a church wedding in a white dress. The actual culture of passing on and keeping the lineage alive through a brother [as in the film] is something that screenwriter Darci Picoult found out from a woman who was talking about the Zimbabwe area, so that was an interesting connection to explore. It's a very old cultural trait. 

I really enjoyed finding the specificities of how different Africans are. We're not one clump, as people tend to think. There are differences even in how our accents work, even between the Yoruba and the Igbo. So that was really enjoyable to explore because to me it's a celebration of the variance of Africans, which is something I'm really passionate about. 

'Mother of George'
Oscilloscope 'Mother of George'

S&A: The film tells an African story taking place in America and told from an African perspective, which we don't see very often. 

DG: I think it's ridiculously overdue. It's so rare to see a film like this and I just believe this is the beginning of many. What Andrew has done is so spectacular, to tell a story about Africans in America, because there's so many of us here. That is an American story, hence it must be embraced as such. 

It's kind of unfortunate that so often a story is interpreted by people who aren't African. Then there's a white protagonist and the Africans are very one-dimensional, as if we're fitting a cog in a wheel for the white protagonist to come to his realization of self with a black African backdrop. I think it's shameful that we're still doing that in our portrayals, be it Hollywood or wherever. It's just not accurate, and there's no attempt to make it authentic because it's all about retaining a stereotype.  

S&A: It's an ongoing debate within film - whether there's room for people from outside a certain culture to tell that culture's story.  

DG: I think it really has to be a case-by-case basis. Ever since grad school, I was the go-to African girl in the theater. "If you want to workshop something, yeah use her." So a lot of times I would start rejecting things where I felt that the spirit of it was off, where it was exploitative of the African story. But there are instances where a fantastically talented storyteller who chooses to deeply collaborate with African people can come up with something that I'm happy to be a part of. Darci, who wrote the screenplay for this, collaborated with Andrew. She created a great story on the page and very compelling characters and he brought a lot of the authenticity. 

It's also the spirit of the thing - are you exoticizing or are you connecting? There's a beautiful connection that Darci feels with Adenike because of her own issues with fertility. And so there's something in the story that came from a universal human experience. 

S&A: This was your second time working with Andrew Dosunmu. What attracts you to his films? 

DG: I love the spirit of what he's doing. He's not only extremely talented, but also his vision was so aligned with mine. Our concerns, our gripes about how we wanted to see things move forward for the African narrative. And he's deeply collaborative and that's what I love. We can be brutally honest and very respectful at the same time.  

This interview is continued on page 2. 

This article is related to: Danai Gurira, Mother of George, Andrew Dosunmu


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