What Danai Gurira Learned About Voting From Her Zimbabwean Upbringing
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because voting is fundamental.
By Daniel Malloy
Playwright and actress Danai Gurira, best known for her role in Black Panther, and fellow playwright–actress Heidi Schreck, who wrote What the Constitution Means to Me, joined The Carlos Watson Show to discuss their efforts to get out the vote in this year’s election. Below are the best cuts from their conversation, edited for space (you can find the full interview on the show’s podcast feed). And don’t miss the theater community’s Act Out: Vote 2020 special on YouTube.
Why This, Why Now?
Carlos Watson: So how did you guys start, Danai, this Vote 2020? Was this one person’s idea? Multiple people’s idea? How did it come about?
Danai Gurira: It was really interesting, in the sense that I think a lot of us are feeling like in 2020 it’s quite a year and a lot’s going and you can feel a lot of frustration, a lot of helplessness: How do I help? How do I contribute at this moment? And as playwrights, we see the institutions, theaters are of course very much hard-hit by COVID and unable to function at all. And so there was just a desire that hit me one day to connect with other playwrights and try to give voice to the Americans we often don’t hear from. Our job as playwrights is really that, to reflect society back to itself, and so we really thought like maybe … I called Tarell [Alvin] McCraney. I called Jocelyn Bioh. And I called Lynn Nottage. And I was like, “What do you guys think about just trying to give voice in a way that we can’t just encourage folks to contribute that, really saying, ‘Let’s vote, guys, let’s make sure we vote this time.’” I mean, it’s a lot of loss of voice when we see how little people have voted in the past. And apparently, there were at least 100 million eligible voters who did not vote in 2016. So it’s just really giving voice to voices and just encouraging people to get out and vote and to give some material also to the theaters that we love and that have supported us and that need support right now in this time.
Lessons From Zimbabwe
Watson: Danai, I feel like you probably have unusually good perspective on the value of a vote, having a family from a different part of the world, where, in Zimbabwe, the sanctity of the vote has not always been there. And so you probably can appreciate on an even more visceral level how important it is. Had you been involved in political efforts before, or is this a meaningful new step for you in terms of organizing various playwrights to do Vote 2020?
Gurira: In 2016, I traveled through a lot of states and really was trying to get out the vote effort during that time, and met a lot of young people who were choosing not to vote. And that was … it was a hard thing to hear that and to hear people make that decision, knowing exactly what you said. I come from a country … I was born two years before all Zimbabweans were able to vote after colonial rule [was] toppled in 1980. And so literally, my parents were only able to vote really in their 40s in the country of my origin, where I then grew up.
And so it is something that is close to me in that regard, that I know how hard fought it is. My parents grew up in a nation they could not vote in, and their parents could not vote in. And of course, here in the United States, we are 100 years this year from the 19th Amendment where women gained the right to vote and then even more of a fight further along the civil rights movement for Black women to be able to vote.… So it’’s not something that we can take lightly. We just had the passing of John Lewis. And that to me was very hard. I’m sure for all of us, of course, of also of RBG, and it’s been a very hard year. We’ve lost a lot of our heroes, but what their service to a better tomorrow in this nation has definitely taught me, and I know it’s taught many of us, is that we must use our full effort and the gifts we’ve been given to contribute to our nation.
What Nonvoters Are Thinking
Watson: Heidi, I know one of your plays is about the Constitution, and I think has a little bit of autobiographical resonance. When you think about people who don’t vote, what have you learned about maybe why they don’t? Because again, 100 million is a large number. And as you said, it’s probably in some ways more heartbreaking when you hear that it’s young people, because in many ways, we hope the young will chart the future for us and will be participatory in the creation of it. But what do you know, or whether it’s through family or others, about why people sometimes don’t vote?
Heidi Schreck: I think there are two big reasons, but I think one of the saddest reasons to me is that people don’t necessarily have faith in the system. And I understand that. I mean, voter suppression is real and enduring, and the way corporate lobbyists are involved in our government makes the government feel like it’s not actually a government of the people. It’s very easy given the way the Electoral College works and the way the primary system works, to feel like your vote doesn’t matter.
So I think among the people I’ve talked to, there’s just a sense of like, “This is kind of rigged against us, so why should we participate?” And I get that. I feel like there’s a lot of things that need to be changed to make it so the system is not rigged against many, many people in this country. But unfortunately the only way we’re going to make that happen is if we all participate. So you can say, “Yes, voter suppression is a huge problem.” You can say, “The people are disenfranchised, the Electoral College maybe is not the best system,” but when you look at the numbers and say yes, and yet 100 million people didn’t vote and that could have made a difference, I feel like I just want to say to those people, “If you want to change that, if you want to make it so the system is no longer rigged, then you have to vote and you have to get your friends to vote and you have to get your family to vote and we have to step up.”
The Big Picture
Watson: Talk to me a little bit, Heidi, about what you would love to see, not just maybe in this election but as someone who thinks about possibility. I think of playwrights as people who think about not only what has happened but what could happen. Paint a little bit of a picture of how you would love to see our democracy evolve, not just this year but over the next decade, or if there’s a longer horizon that you’re thinking about. Give me a little bit of your thinking on that score.
Schreck: What I would like to see personally, and this comes from spending the last decade studying our Constitution and the constitutions of 200 other countries, is I would like to see affirmative human rights put into the Constitution. I would like to pass amendments that guarantee that people are treated humanely and that you are a protected class based on race, sex, gender, ability. I would love to see an amendment that protects our environment. I would love to see an amendment, like many other countries have, that guarantees that we have a right to health care and to education. And I feel like, when I look at the statistics, a lot of our population agrees with me. I would like to see laws passed and possibly amendments added to the Constitution that make the dream of equality that this country was allegedly founded upon a reality. We know it’s not a reality, and we know that in some ways there are forces trying to drag it backward. And I would like to see explicit laws passed to more aggressively right the wrongs of our past.
Watson: We’ve been thinking at OZY about trying to call for a new constitutional convention. Because, like you, we think that we are at a tipping point in our society and that maybe what has worked with a series of amendments over the last 250 years, we should take a whole fresh, wholesale look with a sense of ownership, Danai, as you were saying. With the sense of confidence, with the sense of “This is ours. It’s not someone else’s.” Have you thought about that, Heidi? And how would you think about the possibility of a new constitutional convention, whether it’s in Philadelphia or somewhere else?
Schreck: Well, at the end of the play, we do debate. I debate a young high school girl about whether we should abolish the Constitution and start over. That’s how the play ends. I find it an incredibly hopeful ending when the audience chooses to abolish. The audience judges at the end. And people have asked me like, “Don’t you find that scary or pessimistic?” And I said, “No, I find it incredibly helpful.”
The idea that we would take this country into our own hands and say, “OK, what if we’re the ones who get to imagine the future? What do we want the country to look like? We’ve inherited a lot good and a lot of bad. And so if we were to be the ones in charge, what would we do?” And I feel like that’s whether or not we abolish the Constitution and start over, which many days I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do it. I’ll be at that convention. I have a lot of ideas.” Whether or not we do that, I feel like deciding that we are the new framers of this country, that we’re the ones that shape our own futures is really important. So whether you’re talking about making a new Constitution literally or symbolically, I do agree that it’s time.
- Daniel Malloy, OZY AuthorContact Daniel Malloy