BY ALICE YORK
Just last month, Steppenwolf held its annual Women in the Arts Luncheon, this year honoring actor and playwright Danai Gurira. Familiar, running through January 13 at the Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, is the newest play in Gurira’s oeuvre, which also includes In the Continuum, Eclipsed, and The Convert. When she’s not writing, Gurira can be found onscreen in blockbuster films such as Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War as the scene-stealing General Okoye, and on TV’s popular series The Walking Dead on AMC.
The 10th anniversary luncheon held at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, which raised $200,000 for Steppenwolf education programs, gave guests the opportunity to hear the OBIE, Helen Hayes, and NAACP award-winning powerhouse—and recently appointed United Nations Goodwill Ambassador—discuss and her prolific artistic output and the drive behind it.
Gurira explained that she began writing because she couldn’t find existing works that contained the characters she wanted to play, and continues to write to highlight the experiences of African American women and girls as well as cross-cultural experiences in households such as her own growing up in Zimbabwe. In addition to her work, Gurira also discussed the issues of gender and race equality that move her and have led to her many global philanthropic efforts, including her work with LOGpledge.org and Almasi Arts, organizations she co-founded aimed at awareness, access, and opportunity, and with Bono’s ONE campaign.
Leading up to the intimate conversation between Gurira, Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, and Steppenwolf Education Manager Jared Bellot, Stephanie B. Smith, event co-chair along with Helen Zell, provided opening remarks, and ensemble member Kathryn Erbe, best known for her work on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and HBO’s Oz, introduced a moving video detailing Steppenwolf’s educational efforts.
The event brought together 300 leaders from Chicago’s business and civic communities, including ensemble members Celeste M. Cooper, Jon Michael Hill, Tim Hopper, Amy Morton, co-founder Jeff Perry, and Yasen Peyankov; and Steppenwolf trustees Susan O. Berghoef, Jonathan Blanc, Amy Bluhm, Nora Daley, Beth Davis, Amy Eshleman, Ronald J. Mallicoat Jr., Verett Mims, Heather Mitchell, Lynn Lockwood Murphy, Deborah H. Quazzo, Cari B. Sacks, and Mary A. Dempsey.
Previous honorees include ensemble members Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, and Martha Plimpton, along with Claire Danes, Juliette Lewis, Julianna Margulies, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Mary-Louise Parker, Phylicia Rashad, and last year’s guest of honor, Sarah Paulson.
Over the past decade, the luncheon has raised over $1.3 million for Steppenwolf’s professional development programs, including Steppenwolf for Young Adults, the nationally recognized education program, and the School at Steppenwolf, as well as its professional leadership programs, providing apprenticeships, fellowships, and internships for the next generation of arts managers and producers.