By Judy Carmack Bross
Black Panther and The Living Dead star and playwright Danai Gurira highlights the tenth anniversary of Steppenwolf’s Women in the Arts luncheon December 10 at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel. Luncheon Co-Chair Stephanie Smith hasn’t missed a year of participating on the committee which has celebrated the accomplishments of Claire Danes, Sarah Paulson, Julianna Margulies, Phylicia Rashad, Mary-Louise Parker and Steppenwolf Ensemble members Joan Allen, Martha Plimpton and Martha Lavey, and others.
Danai is acknowledged as one of today’s freshest voices for the stage as the playwright of the critically acclaimed In the Continuum, Eclipsed, The Convert, and Familiar. She has received an OBIE, two Helen Hayes Awards, and an NAACP prize, in addition to a Tony nomination for best play, Eclipsed. Born in Grinnell, Iowa, she moved with her parents who were university educators to Zimbabwe when she was five.
Stephanie shared more about the committee’s choices of powerful and creative women, such as Danai.
How are the honorees chosen?
We start by looking at who inspires us and we always love to have someone connected to Steppenwolf or our ensemble. We are so excited to be honoring Danai Gurira this year while we have the Chicago premiere of her play Familiar on our main stage.
Tell me about how Danai was selected and if you were the person interviewing her, what would you ask her.
While Danai’s work on screen and as a playwright is remarkable, her activism is equally incredible if not more so. She works tirelessly to promote the dramatic arts in Zimbabwe through Amalsi Arts, and through Love Our Girls to highlight women’s issues worldwide. As Steppenwolf features her work onstage, it seemed natural to highlight her amazing life and career.
Who had the idea and how did you and your original host committee decide to feature it? Are there others from the original host committee working on this event?
The idea came about as a way for us to feature the rich, diverse talent that we feel are making a difference in the arts and to highlight the impact that women are making not only in theater, film, and television but also as cultural leaders.
There is an amazing group of women that have been involved since the beginning, including my co-chair Helen Zell and our fellow Steppenwolf trustees Elizabeth Connelly, Nora Daley, Beth Davis and Amy Eshleman.
Why is it particularly important to celebrate women in the arts?
As with many fields of endeavor, the work of women in the arts is often overlooked or undervalued when compared to their male counterparts. The voices of women in the arts are distinct, far-reaching and reflective of our daily reality. They deserve a place of prominence, respect, and admiration.
I know that you use the interview format for the luncheon. Who usually does the interviewing?
Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director, formerly Martha Lavey and now Anna Shapiro, usually conducts the interview. We have also had ensemble member Tracy Letts conduct some of the interviews when there has been a strong relationship with an honoree. This year, the conversation will be Danai and Anna along with Jared Bellot, Steppenwolf’s education manager and a local theater artist. Jared and Danai’s shared interest in arts education makes him a great addition to the conversation.
Tell me about your own interest in the arts and about how you got involved with Steppenwolf.
I grew up with an appreciation for the arts in a very broad sense. As a kid growing up in Detroit, I was exposed to theater, classical and jazz music, and the visual arts on a regular basis. My affiliation with Steppenwolf came about as a result of my former employer, Kraft Foods. Kraft was a long-time sponsor of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program and requested that I serve on the board. While Kraft is no longer a sponsor of the program, my love and support of Steppenwolf have continued.
Are there plays in this year’s repertoire that you are particularly anticipating? What do you love about being part of Steppenwolf?
I always anticipate the full season, every year. That said, I am especially looking forward to our honoree’s play, Familiar. It’s exciting to celebrate Danai while her play is being featured on-stage! What do I love about Steppenwolf: its energy, fearlessness, and innovative spirit.
What sort of feedback do you get from your luncheon guests? What sort of artistic endeavors do most of them represent?
The luncheon has always been well attended since its inception. That’s the greatest feedback we could possibly hope for. The guests at the luncheon are mostly women who do not work in an artistic field, but nonetheless, have a deep appreciation for the arts. Our luncheon guests represent a broad range of careers and endeavors.
Since its inception, the luncheon has raised over $1.3 million for Steppenwolf’s professional development programs, including Steppenwolf for Young Adults—the nationally recognized education program—the School at Steppenwolf, as well as the Professional Leadership Programs, providing apprenticeships, fellowships and internships for the next generation of arts managers and producers.
For more information, go to steppenwolf.org
Photo Credit: Kyle Flubacker and Michael Courier