Danai Gurira’s Rising Star in Hollywood Puts HIV/AIDS in the Spotlight
The actress from “The Walking Dead” is committed to telling difficult stories that might otherwise g
This article is presented in partnership with Johnson & Johnson.
Take Action now! This World AIDS Day you can help keep a baby HIV free with Born Free Africa or help provide medicine to a child with HIV with Nyumbani through the simple act of sharing a photo using the free Donate a Photo app. For every photo you share, Johnson & Johnson will donate *$1 to a great cause you care about - and you will earn (1) Global Citizen Rewards point.
The voices of those afflicted with HIV, especially in southern Africa, often go unheard.
That’s why Danai Gurira, the rising star in AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and the playwright behind “Eclipsed,” the Broadway play starring Lupita Nyong'o, has devoted her career to giving voice to their struggles.
“I was raised on the continent in southern Africa where HIV/AIDS hit the hardest globally in the ’80s and ’90s,” Gurira told Global Citizen about how HIV has come to inform so much of her work. “It was a part of my upbringing. It was a part of how I grew up, watching this epidemic not be there and then be there and change everything.”
The ability of HIV/AIDS to destroy families and communities left a deep impression on Gurira as she emigrated to the United States with her parents, studied at university, and launched her career as a playwright. Her first award-winning, off-Broadway play, “In The Continuum,” told the stories of African women living with HIV, and was performed across the United States, Africa, and at the United Nations.
In recognition of World Aids Day, Gurira has partnered with Johnson & Johnson to raise awareness about how the story of HIV and children in Africa is changing for the better, recognizing that there is still much work to be done. She is also showing people how they can help, through the Johnson & Johnson Donate a Photo app. For every photo uploaded, J&J will donate $1 to a cause, including HIV/AIDS related causes.*
Gurira spoke with Global Citizen about her own first-hand experience seeing HIV/AIDS up close, why the cause has become such a focal point of her career and philanthropy, and what she hopes to accomplish next.
Global Citizen: Danai, you made your debut with “In The Continuum,” and it seems that HIV awareness has always been important to you. Why?
DG: The thing about HIV/AIDS is it’s something very particular that connects through families and relationships, and both awareness and stigma come with it. It’s a very particular social illness in the way it affects a society, it can spread or be curbed.
There was something very crucial about that growing up, affecting our society and who we are and who we became. So yes, in my work, “In The Continuum” was about telling that from the African perspective. The African woman has been the one to contract it and, more so than men, are left socially disempowered, so I wanted to give voice to that. I want them to be more than statistic. It was embedded in what I wanted to address and give voice to.
I found the statistics unacceptable, and I was filled with rage. I wanted to give voice to that in any way I could. Then from doing that, we toured my first play across the US and southern Africa, and through that you meet a lot of on the ground activists and organizations and start to work with them and seek to garner more awareness for them and support them.
Global Citizen: What do you think people need to know about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa?
The issue of women and girls around world: women and girls are more likely to contract this illness because they are less empowered and that is true and real on the continent, where so many adolescent girls are HIV positive, and that doesn’t even go into whether they even made their own choice about sexuality, that’s a whole other issue. It’s something in the US that we need an awareness about.
I also think people in the US should be aware that in the US, we have 1.2 million people living with HIV and one in eight of them does not know it. The act of awareness, of self-awareness, ‘have you been tested,’ ‘have I been tested,’ is so important.
Global Citizen: What does your work with J&J consist of?
I’m partnering with J&J to fight HIV/AIDS on World AIDS Day, and I partnered with them for the Global Citizen concert a couple months ago, and it’s been a great experience.
We are working together to raise awareness of how the story of HIV and children in Africa can and is changing for the better, thanks, in part, to a sustainable community for children impacted by HIV in Kenya, called Nyumbani. Nyumbani offers a supportive living environment where children impacted by HIV/AIDS can survive and thrive, living in a supportive family environment, with education, healthcare and clean water. I am also asking readers to snap a photo of themselves to upload to Johnson & Johnson’s Donate a Photo app. For every photo uploaded, J&J will donate $1 to a cause that you care about, including Nyumbani and others. A donated photo for Nyumbani will help supply needed medicines for children living there.
I grew up in southern Africa and the experience of watching the loss that happens when it hits the home, children are left orphans, left without a familial structure, so bringing awareness to that is so crucial. We need to make sure issues of global health are dealt with. AIDS is all about awareness, the more we know, the more we can curb this illness.
Global Citizen: What can Global Citizens do to help?
If you want to help, you can, you can download the Donate a Photo app and from there you can donate a photo, once a day, everyday and J&J will donate $1 to one of the nonprofit partners, including Nyumbani. You can help even more people if you share your donated photos on your social media channels, to build awareness so that more people can do the same. Pretty amazing, simple way to help. You can also go to https://www.jnj.com/HIV to learn about more stories of hope and progress, and see additional ways to help.
It’s a massive problem. How do we stop it from going onto next generation? Well, you can donate directly by donating a photo, so can help while also seeing Global Citizenship occur, and this is very important to me, to have people learn about these organizations and communities and about his issue globally. If you’re not aware how can you care?
Global Citizen: How do you divide your time between acting and writing, or do you have other projects and goals in the works?
I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Currently I’m in preproduction for a Marvel movie, Black Panther, and I have finished this season of “The Walking Dead.” In terms of writing, I’ll be writing a Jessica Chastain-produced screenplay for a film about women in South Africa who are in an anti-poaching patrol unit, the Black Mambas. These women exist doing that work everyday. And I’m developing a pilot with HBO dealing with the African immigrant experience in the US.
I get to do what I love. I look at young girls, my passion is around young girls and women, one of my non-profits Love Our Girls is about bringing awareness to girls and women. When I go to the continent and see girls faces that look like mine but without the opportunity I’ve had, it makes me work harder for the activism I do. There’s no reason for her not to succeed and excel and find all her greatness unhindered. That is the key thing I try to do, to tell stories that try to give voices to such young women we rarely hear from.
This interview has been edited & condensed.
*Johnson & Johnson has curated a list of trusted causes, and you can donate a photo to one cause, once a day. Each cause will appear in the app until it reaches its goal, or the donation period ends. If the goal isn't reached, the cause will still get a minimum donation.