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Danai Gurira has spent much of her career telling African stories we don’t normally hear much about. The actress and playwright’s latest project, introduced on Saturday at the Global Citizen Festival in New York, sets out to challenge the sketchily drawn, narrow representations of Africans that are all too typical of the media.
Gurira, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson and Global Citizen, co-wrote and narrated a new short film, “I Was There,” highlighting how the HIV/AIDS epidemic affects the lives of children in Kenya’s Nyumbani Village. Although she was born in the United States, the filmmaker was raised in Southern Africa in the 1980s and ’90s, when HIV/AIDS first started to take hold, and she says the experience transformed her.
“I witnessed — vividly — families, society, the fabric of life, rocked by this epidemic,” she tells Yahoo Style. “It definitely shaped my upbringing. There was no way around that.” And while people outside that experience may be accustomed to hearing tragic stories about the disease, Gurira says portrayals of the crisis in the media often reduce individuals to statistics.
“There is a statistic[al] perspective toward what is going on on the continent. It wasn’t about individuals, it wasn’t about individual stories, it wasn’t about the intricacies of life and people — with aspirations, dreams, careers — being affected in the prime of their lives,” she says. “That was something that made me a bit of an activist right when I came back to the United States… just wanting to help people on this side of the world understand that it’s not this helpless situation where people are unwilling to see their lives progress, and are doing things carelessly. It’s not like that. They’re just like you and I — people that are trying to live their lives the best they can and are striving for upward mobility, who had these experiences deeply affect them.”
In the video, Gurira conveys the humanity, resilience, and hopefulness of the village, showing how, even in the face of tragedy, people in the community are still trying to live their lives with dignity. It’s an alternative to the one-dimensional depictions that Gurira believes are typical of the media.
“I am very bored of that,” she says emphatically. “I think it’s very boring that a good amount of Western press still leans on very hackneyed ideas of how to portray the continent. And it doesn’t really — still — want to catch on to the concept that Africans can speak for themselves. It’s still like, ‘What? No, they can’t! We’ll get someone else to do it for them!’ Like there are so many very, very deeply intelligent, articulate Africans who can run circles around many. So why do we constantly keep going to those hackneyed, stereotypical, one-dimensional images of the continent?”
Fortunately, thanks to a few determined people in Hollywood and theater, the tide is slowly starting to turn. Queen of Katwe, starring Lupita Nyong’o, is set to hit theaters Sept. 30, and presents a narrative focused on African people. Marvel, meanwhile, has taken on the Black Panther story for 2018, in a superhero movie that puts people of color in the spotlight.
There is clearly a market for stories about people of color, and Gurira believes we need to let go of the idea that no one wants to hear them. “My first play [In the Continuum] came out over 10 years ago, and as far as plays go in the United States, it did extremely well. And people were like ‘Oh! how did this play about women with AIDS in Africa do so well?’ It’s because if things are crafted well and they are told with power, specificity, and skill, they will be well-received,” she says. “I always say I’m a mad scientist, and my hypothesis is that if you tell a story well, it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from, it will be heard, and it will be absorbed. And yeah, initially, when my first play came out, it was shocking how well it did. But then I was like, of course it was going to do this well, in a sense, because this is a story people actually do want to hear. It’s just not there, so they don’t know they want to hear it yet.”
Gurira says she focuses on telling African stories not only because of the adage to “write what you know,” but because so few of them ever appear in the media. And she says she has no plans to stop following her heart. “Society is… ready to hear from people who are rarely heard from. [It is] ready to hear that story, that component, that dimension, that complexity. That’s why all my plays are about African women, and all the work I continue to do will be from that perspective. And I don’t need to step out of that,” she says. “Why would anyone ask me to? No one’s ever asked Scorsese to stop telling stories from the perspective of white men — so don’t ask me to step out of telling stories as African women.”