By Jillian Bonnardeaux, Assistant Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy Harare
It’s not every day you meet a sword-wielding zombie killer. Lucky for us, one of America’s most well-known zombie killers came to Harare in March. Zimbabwean students, theater aficionados, members of the U.S. Mission community, and local American citizens had the chance to meet and talk with Ms. Danai Gurira, the actor who plays “Michonne,” one of the main characters in the comic-book-turned-hit-television series The Walking Dead.
Embassy Harare’s Public Affairs Section (PAS) has been working with this dyanamic, young Zimbabwean-American actress and playwright since long before her first audition for The Walking Dead. For World AIDS Day 2011, PAS organized a national tour of Gurira’s award-winning play, “In the Continuum,” for which she came to Zimbabwe to co-direct. The play was funded by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) as it tells the stories of two HIV positive women, one in the U.S. and one in Zimbabwe. Gurira returned again to Harare in 2013 to work with the Almasi Collaborative Arts company. Almasi was founded by Gurira and her creative partner, Ms. Gamu Patience Tawengwa, an accomplished Zimbabwean theater and film director and a graduate of Kennesaw State University in Georgia, to address challenges faced in the Zimbabwean dramatic arts sector and to build collaboration and partnerships between Zimbabwean artists and experienced American professionals.
“Danai is unique because she is not just a famous television actress as many Americans know her, but she really embraces responsibility as a role model for aspiring artists and especially for young girls,” said U.S. Ambassador Bruce Wharton. “Her commitment to telling the stories of women and of Zimbabwe is compelling, and brings our countries closer together through arts platforms. This has been a critical addition to the Embassy’s programming.” Gurira is committed to building long-term collaboration and partnership between Zimbabwean artists and experienced American theater leaders by sharing American best practices in theater arts. She returns home regularly to work with aspiring artists and co-founded the Almasi Collaborative Arts Company as part of her commitment to helping develop Zimbabwean theater even while she is in the U.S.
Through our relationship with Gurira, the Embassy commissioned the already performed Raisin in the Sun stage reading to be viewedby students from the University of Zimbabwe and young arts professionals. This kind of arts education and skills development helps build professionalization in the Zimbabwean arts industry, which in turn promotes Mission goals of increasing cultural and educational exchange and enhancing economic opportunity in Zimbabwe.
Ambassador Wharton hosted a Black History Month event in February featuring an Almasi reading of “A Raisin in the Sun.” The evening also celebrated five high school students from around the country – all winners of the Embassy Black History Month essay contest. Their writings focused on the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem (or A Dream Deferred)” which opens the play by Lorraine Hansberry. During Women’s History Month in March, Almasi took the play reading to an audience of 600 students at a Harare high school. This was a chance to recognize both the late Ms. Hansberry and Gurira for their accomplishments as talented, young, female African-Americans. Gurira also participated in PAS’s annual Women’s History Month speaker program that sends American and Zimbabwean women to address school girls about careers and life skills. Gurira visited one of the top girls schools in Harare and discussed her love of writing and her new play, which is part of a trilogy about the history of Zimbabwe. She answered questions about her career and shared lessons on building confidence in young girls. Gurira’s program was one of nearly 20 similar outreach events in high schools around the country that reached over 3,000 girls.
“Danai is a wonderful partner to work with on arts programs,” said Sharon Hudson-Dean, Counselor for Public Affairs in Harare. “She has a natural ability to bridge cultures and to connect with young people and theater and film lovers. Her work and her enthusiasm bring our two nations together in a way that helps strengthen a positive bilateral relationship.”