The 18 million or so viewers who tune in to "The Walking Dead" each week on AMC know Danai Gurira as Michonne, the dreadlocked fan favorite whose skills with a katana have made her indispensable during the zombie apocalypse.
But she's also becoming a breakout star in the New York theater community, where the actress and Obie-winning playwright has two plays dealing, in wildly different ways, with the African experience.
"Eclipsed," a drama about four women held as sexual slaves by a warlord during the Liberian civil war and starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o, opened at Broadway's Golden Theater this month after a well-received run at the Public Theater last year. It's believed to be the first play in Broadway history written, directed by and starring women — and African American women at that — and comes during a landmark year for diversity on the New York stage.
A few blocks away at Playwrights Horizons is "Familiar," a culture-clash comedy that follows a Zimbabwean American family in the days leading to the wedding of a perfectionist daughter to an earnest white man.
Gurira, 38, appreciates her part in this groundbreaking moment.
"I realized one night that there were 10 women of African descent on stages in New York City at the same time, hopefully getting to tell stories through complex and rich major characters," she said, nestled in a couch on "Familiar's" catalog-perfect living room set.
A funny, poignant look at the complexities of the immigrant experience in America, "Familiar" is the more personal work for Gurira, born in Iowa but primarily raised in Zimbabwe by parents who were intellectuals.
The play, which originated at the Yale Repertory Theatre last year, is "about healing and grace," says Gurira, glamorously kitted out in a colorful wrap dress — a far cry from Michonne's blood-stained denim and leather ensemble.
It centers on Marvelous and Donald Chinyaramwira, a married couple who fled their native Zimbabwe during the civil war of the 1970s and have thrived in their adopted country by embracing middle-American traditions like college football and leather La-Z-Boys. When Marvelous' estranged sister, Anne, shows up unannounced from Zimbabwe, the cost of assimilation becomes clear.
Gurira explains that she was inspired to write "Familiar" several years ago at a family wedding. "A relative was marrying a white man from the Midwest, a lovely man who had been to Africa and spent time working there. She had never been, and she was the one with the African name."
Many elements of "Familiar," directed by Rebecca Taichman, are "directly cut and pasted" from that wedding weekend, says Gurira, proudly pointing out framed pictures of her family scattered around the set.
"I learned a lot of grace that weekend toward my family," she says. "Everyone made the choices they made with good intentions."
If "Familiar" is a tale of assimilation, "Eclipsed" is one of survival. Set in a bullet-scarred shack, the play focuses on four women, held as "wives" by a rebel warlord known only as "C.O." — or commanding officer. Each woman is known only by her rank — Nyong'o plays No. 4, the newcomer — and jealously guards her given name, and each has a different strategy for enduring the relentless sexual assaults.
Though it's certainly not a comedy, "Eclipsed" contains surprising moments of levity, including a running gag about a Bill Clinton biography that has somehow found its way into the hut.
Gurira traveled to Liberia in 2007 to conduct extensive research for the play. She met with survivors and with members of the women's peace movement who'd helped secure an end to the conflict and bring President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the continent's first democratically elected female head of state, to power.
"There was no way I was going to create some generalized concept of girls in war," she said.
She spent a lot of time just listening, absorbing the particular rhythm and language of the Liberian people to avoid what she calls the absurd, monolithic abstractions of the continent endemic in Western media.
"I'm deeply keen to make sure the African story is told with specificity," says Gurira, explaining that creating fictional African nations and peoples, while common, doesn't sit well with her.
"Making up a language, making up a country … why don't you just use all the places that really exist and spend the time actually getting to know a specific nation which has a specific history, a specific language, a specific culture?" she said.
"Eclipsed" asks the audience to consider what it might do under similar circumstances: submit to sexual abuse or escape it by taking up arms and committing atrocities against other women and children. Not surprisingly, Gurira says she identifies with the charismatic, AK-47-toting No. 2 (f.k.a. Maima), a character who bears more than a passing resemblance to Michonne.
Gurira wrote "Eclipsed" several years before she was offered "The Walking Dead" but was intrigued by the unexpected connection between two projects that, superficially at least, seem rather different.
The show, which in its sixth season remains one of the most-watched scripted series on television, has been a life-changing experience for Gurira, whose previous TV work had mostly been limited to guest roles in series like "Law & Order" and "Treme." Though she joined "The Walking Dead" in its third season, she is now widely considered one of its few unkillable characters.
"Definitely remove your match.com profile if you have one the minute you're told you're going to be on 'The Walking Dead,'" she says with a laugh.
Gurira's major professional moment also extends to "The Walking Dead," where Michonne is breaking new ground. After years of slowly building tension (and reams of fan fiction), she finally hooked up with series protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), an interracial coupling that has already inspired passionate think pieces on blogs with names like "Black Girl Nerds."
"I think the resonance says something," says Gurira, who enjoys acting in part because it helps realize the vision of other storytellers. "I want that for you because I want that for me. I'm definitely one of the people who constantly will text my boss [show runner Scott Gimple] all the time and be like, 'What did you mean?' just making sure I'm connecting to the vision at hand."
For Gurira, writing and acting have always been two sides of the same coin. She first gained critical notice for co-writing and costarring in "In the Continuum," which followed two women over the course of 48 hours as they learned they were HIV-positive.
"I couldn't find anything that satisfied me anyway so that's why I started to create narratives myself," says Gurira. "It was really a necessity being the mother of invention."
Growing up, Gurira soaked up Western pop culture — "Melrose Place," "Dallas," movies with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. When she returned to the U.S. to study at Macalester College in Minnesota, she planned to study psychology and end up in academia, like her parents. But during a junior year abroad in South Africa, she was exposed to artists who'd used their work to affect social change.
"I recognized I wanted to devote myself to trying to tell African women stories," recalls Gurira, who pursued an MFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. "I'm a child of academics. I'm all about getting the training. Don't roll out of bed and say, 'I can do this.'"