Danai Gurira is riding a meteor.
The Iowa-born, St. Paul-educated actor co-stars in “Black Panther,” the Marvel film that has grossed more than $1 billion around the world while hyper-charging the celebrity of all involved.
Onscreen, Gurira is known for playing take-no-mess butt-kickers, first as the sword-wielding zombie slayer Michonne in TV’s “The Walking Dead” and now as Gen. Okoye, head of the Wakanda kingdom’s all-female security force.
But in the theater world, the Macalester College grad is celebrated as an insightful playwright who brings new characters to the stage. This weekend, her play “Familiar” makes its regional premiere at the Guthrie Theater.
“Familiar” is about the conflicts that arise as an educated African woman gets ready to marry a white fella from Minnetonka. By her own admission, Gurira found “Familiar” her most difficult play to write.
“It’s the closest thing to my own family that I’ve ever written,” Gurira said by phone from London last weekend. “I was at a wedding some years ago that involved cultural interconnections and clashes. That inspired me.”
She wears the hats of actor and playwright with equal pride.
“I look at writing and acting both as storytelling, and as long as the storytelling or the story is something I feel a deep desire or urgency to tell, I’m in my purpose,” Gurira said. “There are times, yes, where I need to go quiet for a while and go write — give the writing its space and time. But whichever one I’m doing, it feels like I’m working within my calling, which is telling stories I’m deeply connected to, which I feel a passion in my heart for and a deep desire to tell.”
Those stories are often about women, mostly African, navigating terrain that’s emotionally, psychologically and physically complicated.
Her first play, “In the Continuum,” was about the impact of AIDS on two women, one from Africa, the other from America. “The Convert” is about a young woman in colonial East Africa caught between traditional and Western belief systems.
And now there’s “Familiar,” which premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015. Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj saw a New York production in 2016 — the New York Times called it “fiercely funny” — and immediately knew he had to bring the play to the Twin Cities.
The Minnesota setting made it a no-brainer, he said. More importantly, though, “Danai Gurira’s voice is such an important one in our current moment,” said Haj. “She uses her significant talents as both an actor and a playwright to weave stories that are not seen often enough on our stages.”
Those stories often spring from her heritage. Gurira was born in Grinnell, Iowa, to a chemist father and a librarian mother, both from Zimbabwe, where they later returned to raise their children.
“Africans are the most educated immigrant group in this country,” she said. “I grew up around African immigrant parents who have Ph.D’s and master’s degrees, and a lot of other Africans with Ph.D’s and master’s degrees, but I’ve never seen that perspective told of the African experience.
“In a large way, immigrant stories are not told very often or very deeply. There’s a very large African population in the Midwest, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Minnesota, so it just made sense that that’s where the story takes place.”
‘She had a far horizon’
“Familiar” represents an artistic homecoming of sorts.
Gurira, 40, studied psychology and theater at Macalester, where her promise was immediately evident, said theater and dance professor Beth Cleary, who was her mentor and remains a close friend.
“Our job [as teachers] was to give her the things she needed and get out of her way,” Cleary said. “She wasn’t demanding but already she had really high standards. And it was clear she had a far horizon that she was walking toward.”
Gurira’s clarity of purpose and strong will have served her well, Cleary said. The professor recalled offering her a role. Gurira declined — something that went counter to the take-what-you-get-until-you-get-what-you-want advice typically imparted to young actors.
“Her discernment has followed her in her work,” Cleary said.
During her senior year, in 2001, Gurira performed in a noteworthy production of the Ntozake Shange play “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” The cast included young women who’ve gone on to be doctors and lawyers.
“Shange was one of the voices I looked to, to celebrate ourselves as women of color on the global stage,” said Gurira, who describes her experience in that production as “a time of sisterhood.”
The show was directed and choreographed by Dale Shields. “She was a very intelligent, strong and independent young lady,” said Shields, who is now retired. “She approached her studies, her classes, with a lot of focus, and you can see the same things in her performance in ‘Black Panther.’ ”
A ‘passion’ to help women
Right after graduation, Gurira performed in Penumbra Theatre’s Late Night series, curated by the late Laurie Carlos, one of the original cast members of “Colored Girls.”
Her Twin Cities connection continued in graduate school at New York University, where she studied acting with the late Ken Washington, a seminal force in actor training at the Guthrie and Juilliard. He knew her passions well.
She said Washington “handed me a newspaper article of these Liberian women that was on the cover of the New York Times. And it was about these women who were rebel fighters in the Liberian War when it was at its height at that time, 2003.”
Gurira immediately knew she had to tell a story like that.
“You just never hear about African women in war,” she said. “I hadn’t, and I grew up on the continent. It was research I was keen to absorb and also to give voice where I could. That was the impetus for ‘Eclipsed.’ ”
While her characters onstage and onscreen model strength, she personally seeks to empower young women through a global nonprofit she founded, Love Our Girls, which works in the areas of education, gender equality, reproductive health, sexual violence and poverty.
“My passion and desire has always been to help girls and women,” Gurira said. “Sometimes the world works against that when it comes to being female — when it comes to being of color.”
There’s much talk of sequels to “Black Panther,” which has taken her on a whirlwind global tour from “Good Morning America” to promotional appearances in South Africa and the United Kingdom. “I think I’d watch three action films with just Okoye,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told Entertainment Weekly recently. Gurira doubts her busy schedule will allow her to see the Guthrie production.
In her travels, she is meeting women inspired by Gen. Okoye’s strength and sense of mission. They, in turn, are inspiring her work.
“As Danai, I have to steady my shoulders because I stand on shoulders of women before me,” Gurira said. “If I can steady my shoulders enough so that young girls and women can stand on them, then I feel like my purpose is actualized.”