(Photo: Caitlin McNaney)
While earning raves and 2016 Tony nominations for their work on Eclipsed, playwright Danai Gurira and director Liesl Tommy have been living double lives, creatively speaking: Gurira plays zombie killer Michonne in the international TV megahit The Walking Dead; Tommy recently opened Frozen Live at the Hyperion, an hour-long stage version of the movie musical, at Disneyland’s California Adventure theme park. But if these champion multitaskers seem a tad tired heading into Tony week, their energy returns the minute they begin talking about Eclipsed and the pride they feel for the play.
Q: You must be so excited about the success of Eclipsed, which debuted at Yale Rep back in 2009. It’s rare for a woman to get a Best Play Tony nomination, and even rarer for a female director to be honored.
DANAI: We feel the excitement, but also it’s like, why is it rare? There are a lot of women writing amazing work and a lot of amazing directors. The idea that this kind of recognition is rare is a crying shame.
LIESL: People keep saying it’s amazing when they realize there hadn’t been a female director of an all-female show written by a woman. But to me, that was really shocking for 2016. This has been an incredible season for diversity, but that doesn’t mean anybody can relax. We have to keep investing in bringing voices to Broadway that are not normally heard there.
Q: The two of you look joyful in photos at awards season events, posing with your Tony-nominated actresses [Lupita Nyong’o, Pascale Armand and Saycon Sengbloh] and cast members from other shows. Have you enjoyed it?
DANAI: Oh, deeply! Really, it’s been awesome. The last time I was part of an awards season was 10 years ago with my off-Broadway show In the Continuum, but I was in Africa doing it and so I missed the Obies, Outer Critics and Drama League. I’ve had a great time getting to know people I admire.
LIESL: You really feel the community at events like the Tony luncheon, whether it’s a big movie star or a theater actor who has pounded the pavement for their whole career. It’s very equalizing, and that, to me, is very meaningful.
Q: Liesl, did you ever try to talk Danai into being in Eclipsed?
LIESL: We had one conversation about it, and she was so clearly not interested that I never brought it up again.
DANAI: The goal of this play for me was to step back and create work specifically for other women of African descent. So, to take up a fifth of the stage space didn’t make sense to my mandate. I love seeing these five women shine and find their groove. Three of them have Tony noms! I could go in there and bomb.
Q: Danai is an actress and playwright; Liesl just opened Frozen at Disneyland. What’s appealing about working in different worlds and blending lighter and darker material?
DANAI: I think of myself as a storyteller: I love to pick up a perfectly minted script written by somebody else and slip into it as an actor, and I love to complete a narrative that I have labored over and birthed. A great story is a great story, and you can find it in Ibsen and Shaw and Chekhov—Familiar [Gurira’s latest play, which debuted off-Broadway in March] was my Chekhovian version of my own people—and you can find it in a zombie apocalypse. It’s exciting to me to find parallels in Michonne [in The Walking Dead] and Wife #2 [in Eclipsed]. Both turn themselves into weapons to deal with hostile environments.
LIESL: Like Danai, I started out as an actor, and I don’t feel any limits in terms of what I can or should do in telling a story. With Frozen, Disney offered me the job out of the blue; I didn’t know anything about the movie or the venue. It’s been really invigorating because every ethnicity is represented for the princesses and princes, the kings and queens. The casting is completely diverse, which was a new idea for Disney. And the reaction has been crazy. “Let It Go” is like a Beyoncé concert.
Q: Where did your ambition and drive come from?
LIESL: I’ve always been super driven and focused, and I also think it’s part of being an immigrant—the work ethic that comes with feeling you’ve got a lot to prove. Growing up in South Africa and experiencing extreme poverty, you look at your own path and think, how did I get so lucky? I’d better take up this space and leave something meaningful.
DANAI: I was born into an academic family, and the idea of immersing yourself in a topic of interest and pursuing what you love is how I was raised. Having a father with a Ph.D. does something to your psyche! You understand that you’ve got to finish what you start. I had to get my M.F.A. [from NYU] because I wanted to learn the rules so that I could then break them.
Q: Who will be your date to the Tonys?
DANAI: Zainab Jah, who plays Wife #2. She’s an astounding performer and a dear friend who has been part of Eclipsed for a long time.
LIESL: I’m going to invite Dame Diane DiVita, the stage manager of our show. It’s an unsung hero position, and she is a fierce lady who has poured her heart and soul into maintaining our vision. I’m getting emotional! Stage managers never go to the Tonys, and I feel like she should come and enjoy the night with us.
Q: Finally, what are you wearing?
DANAI: A dress. Who’s the designer? [Gurira’s assistant flips open a notebook and responds, “Rosie Assoulin.]
LIESL: Vogue is dressing me for the Tonys. I’m going to a fitting right now.
Q: Will Anna Wintour pop by in her sunglasses to weigh in on your choices?
LIESL: I can only pray!