by Angela Carroll
This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.
Familiar, by Tony Award winning playwright Danai Gurira, is an intimate comedy-drama set in the home of a first-generation Zimbabwean family living in Minnesota. The family has gathered over the weekend to celebrate and prepare for the winter wedding of their eldest daughter, Tendi (Sharina Martin) to Chris, her white fiancé, (Drew Kopas).
Audiences engage with the story through the family’s hilarious and layered discourse. Nyasha, the youngest daughter (Shannon Dorsey), is an artist who has dedicated herself to uphold the cultural traditions she assumes her parents have abandoned. Her resentment for her parents is particularly amusing; she is financially dependent on them, and benefits from the fortune they have accrued, but critiques them harshly for failing to teach her more about her heritage. Nyasha’s passionate desire to sustain and expand her connection to their heritage is fostered by her relationship with her aunt Margaret, (Twinkle Burke). Though Margaret is portrayed as worrisome – she avoids conversations about her career or children, and drinks excessively – she is an important resource for Nyasha, who learns about the customs and language of the Shona people from her.
Nyasha’s mother Marvelous, (Inga Ballard), and father Donald, (Kim Sullivan), are caught in their own marital debate. Their struggle is coded in their recurring interaction with a map of Zimbabwe; each time Donald hangs up the map, Marvelous removes it and buries it at the bottom of a closet. The map comes to represent an unspoken anxiety about their relationship to each other and their troubled memories of Zimbabwe.
The situation intensifies with the arrival of Marvelous’ older sister Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), the matriarch of the family. Anne flew from Zimbabwe to Minnesota to conduct a traditional pre-wedding ceremony called Roora, a ritual she believes will bless and fortify the bond between her niece Tendi and Chris. The troubled relationship between Marvelous and Anne is a major point of contention for the family; each woman stubbornly maintains their perception about the other as irrational and belligerently combative. In one particularly telling scene, Anne confronts Marvelous about her hesitations to participate in the Roora ceremony. “We can do our customs and be Christian.” Anne states confidently. “Our ancestors are dead!” Marvelous screams back. “But they don’t want our customs to die out!” Anne rebuts. The family is flanked on all sides by secrets from the past that threaten to disrupt their lives. Anne’s character anchors the family to Zimbabwe, and functions as a blatant reminder about all the family lost when they became American.
Some of the funniest scenes occur when Anne tries to teach Chris and his brother Brad (Andy Truschinski) how to properly execute the Roora ceremony. Brad, an army vet and self-proclaimed “family fuck up” must serve as the Munyai, a messenger between the groom, Chris and Anne, the ceremonial conductor. The brothers are bewildered that they are required to pay a monetary tribute for Tendi’s hand in marriage. Chris’ love for Tendi, coupled with his desire to revere the traditions of his new family, prompt him to acquiesce enthusiastically to all of Anne’s requests while Brad is especially vocal about his discomfort and responds to each of Anne’s requests with random outbursts and satirical queries.
Gurira describes Familiar, as “an ode to the African immigrant”, and while the play does a marvelous job of humanizing representations of African-American families, it is also an outstanding work of classic Americana. Under the direction of Adam Immerwahr, a longtime collaborator with Gurira, Woolly Mammoth’s exceptional cast present distinctly memorable characters who each reflect the changing face of America. Gurira’s wit and humor offers powerful perspectives about culture, economics, race and privilege that are profoundly refreshing. Entertaining, full of unexpected plot twists and revelatory characters, Familiar is an outstanding entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
Familiar by Danai Gurira. Directed by Adam Immerwahr. Cast: Shannon Dorsey as Nyasha, Inga Ballard as Marvelous, Kim Sullivan as Donald, Twinkle Burke as Margaret, Cheryl Lynn Bruce as Anne, Sharina Martin as Tendi, Drew Kopas as Chris, and Andy Truschiniski as Brad. Lighting Design, Colin K. Bills. Set Design, Paige Hathaway. Costume Design, Karen Perry and Robert Croghan. Sound Design, Justin Schmitz. Stage Manager, John Keith Hall. Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company .