by Charles Isherwood on March 3, 2016
A wedding almost always involves some kind of culture clash. Church ceremony or civil? To bridesmaid or not to bridesmaid? But the impending nuptials in Danai Gurira’s fiercely funny new play, “Familiar,” about a Zimbabwean-American family in Minnesota, make even the most fraught weddings seem comparatively placid affairs. By the end of this engrossing comedy-drama, which opened on Thursday at Playwrights Horizons, deep fissures within the family have been exposed, fresh wounds are rubbed raw and long-buried secrets are unearthed.
Ms. Gurira, an excellent actor as well as a playwright, is having a remarkable season on New York stages. Her terrific “Eclipsed,” about the brutal cost borne by women during the Liberian civil war in Africa, starring Lupita Nyong’o, opens on Broadway on Sunday after an acclaimed run at the Public Theater last fall, making history as the first Broadway production to be written by, directed by and entirely cast with black women. (A dollar for anyone who can name the first such production staffed exclusively by white men.)
Although it is just as accomplished, “Familiar” is a play written in a significantly lighter key, even as it probes with subtlety and smarts the subject of immigration and assimilation — a topic of major currency these days.
Donald and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Harold Surratt and Tamara Tunie) are the kind of people even the most rabid foes of immigration might point to with satisfaction as living proof that achieving the American dream is not the exclusive privilege of those born here.
They fled Zimbabwe more than three decades ago, during the country’s civil war, and have settled thoroughly into the American way of life. Marvelous is a biochemist; Donald a partner in a law firm. The measure of their success can be easily gleaned from the traditional furnishings displayed on the handsome set by Clint Ramos. Their comfort with our native customs is indicated by the comfy armchair squarely facing the flat-screen television in the living room, into which Donald settles to watch a college football game.
Marvelous, played with regal elegance by Ms. Tunie, has taken charge of the coming celebration, piling up platters of rich canapés to treat family and friends before the rehearsal dinner. Donald and Marvelous’s eldest daughter, also a lawyer, Tendi (a sterling Roslyn Ruff), will be marrying her boyfriend Chris (Joby Earle, endearingly goofy) on the morrow, and Marvelous is the kind of woman who wants to make sure no detail has been overlooked.
Of course, a wedding without drama would hardly qualify as a wedding at all, and Ms. Gurira proves a plentiful caterer in this regard. Up first is the mild tension between Marvelous and her younger daughter, Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), who has just returned from a trip to her ancestral home, full of renewed pride in her heritage and questions about her parents’ apparent lack of interest in maintaining ties to the culture they were born into.
Nyasha, whom Ms. Aghayere portrays with appealing vibrancy, bubbles with enthusiasm over her trip, but she must also defend herself from her mother’s cutting remarks about her somewhat formless career as an aspiring singer-songwriter who makes a modest living as a feng shui consultant.
Also on the receiving end of Marvelous’s imperious asides is her sister Margaret (a warm, slightly melancholy Melanie Nicholls-King), who has also become firmly assimilated into a new culture — Nyasha and her mother share a joke about her frequent “weaves” — albeit with less financial success. (To anesthetize herself against her sister’s subtle broadsides in this regard, she continually nurses a glass of red wine.)
But the bombshell comes with the arrival from Zimbabwe of Marvelous’s older sister, Anne, played with a commanding air of dignity by the superb Myra Lucretia Taylor. This surprise, arranged by Tendi, does not sit well with Marvelous when she learns that Anne will perform a traditional Zimbabwean “bride price” ceremony.
“That is a nonstarter!” Marvelous announces upon learning the news.
“You think you are white now?” Anne counters. “Now you want to judge me? I am here to bless our daughter,” she adds, putting the emphasis on “our,” indicating the cultural tradition by which a young woman’s aunts are also considered her “mother.”
Just as the conflict between Marvelous and Anne is reaching fever pitch — “You want this little white boy from Minnetonka to bring us some cows?” Marvelous asks mockingly — the little white boy, Chris, quietly sidles into the room, silencing dissent, at least for the moment.
Ms. Gurira weaves issues of cultural identity and displacement, generational frictions and other meaty matters into dialogue that flows utterly naturally. Her engaging characters are drawn with sympathy and, under the crisp direction of Rebecca Taichman, “Familiar” stays firmly on course even as the complications pile up.
New revelations continue to emerge well into the second act, inching Ms. Gurira close to melodrama. But “Familiar” certainly doesn’t contain more chewy family-angst fodder than, say, “August: Osage County,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award, even if some critics felt it was a boxing match with a few too many rounds.
And all the confrontations are considerably leavened by humor, particularly when Chris must rope in his brother, the laid-back Brad (a hilarious Joe Tippett) into representing him during the bride price ceremony, because it’s improper for the groom himself to partake directly in negotiations.
Since Donald and Marvelous’s decision never to return to Zimbabwe becomes a topic of fiery debate, it struck me as odd that Ms. Gurira never brings in the name of Robert Mugabe, the leader of Zimbabwe since 1980, whose policies have virtually destroyed the country’s economy. Then again, as entertaining as their squabbling is, the last thing this family needs is another bone of contention to gnaw on before finally sitting down to that rehearsal dinner.
416 W. 42nd St.
Category Off Broadway, Comedy/Drama, Play
Credits Written by Danai Gurira; Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Cast Featuring Ito Aghayere, Joby Earle, Melanie Nicholls-King, Roslyn Ruff, Harold Surratt, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Joe Tippett and Tamara Tunie
Preview February 12, 2016
Opened March 3, 2016
Closing Date April 10, 2016