A brightly colored map of southern Africa hangs in the tasteful Minnesota living room where Danai Gurira sets her smart, generous comedy Familiar, now at Playwrights Horizons in a production directed by Rebecca Taichman. Sometimes, that is: The space usually belongs to an innocuous floral print, but the family patriarch swaps it out for the geography of his homeland — Zimbabwe — whenever his wife’s back is turned. These skirmishes over décor reflect a larger, subtler war being waged in the home, a conflict over identity, family, and belief that the Zimbabwean-American playwright probes with affectionate humor.
It’s a festive occasion for Gurira’s Chinyamwira family. Tendi (Roslyn Ruff), the eldest daughter of Marvelous (Tamara Tunie) and Donald (Harold Surratt), is getting married, and relations gather from near and far. Younger sister Nyasha (Ito Aghayere) returns from questing for her African roots, while Auntie Maggie (Melanie Nicholls-King) seeks refuge from her chaotic professional and home life.
Every family occasion (and every play about them) also demands an unexpected guest — and as it happens, Tendi’s invited her elder aunt, Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor), from Zimbabwe to perform a traditional Roora ceremony, in which the groom’s representative bargains with the bride’s family, winning her only at a laboriously arrived-at price.
No one’s thrilled about hosting a Roora ceremony on the day of Tendi’s rehearsal dinner: It’s too Zimbabwean for the accomplished, Americanized Marvelous. Anne would prefer willing male relatives to set Tendi’s price — but in their absence assumes imperious control. Squabbles both hilarious and, well, familiar ensue. Tendi perseveres, summoning her befuddled Midwestern fiancé, Chris (Joby Earle), to participate, but it’s soon clear that Roora and rehearsal dinners can’t quite coexist. Auntie Anne’s ceremony requires patience and respect, not Martha Stewart–grade scheduling. Meanwhile, Chris and his brother Brad — who gets roped into bargaining on his behalf — bumble through the ceremony, unprepared for the rigorous ritual and the lavish gifts it demands (where would these boys acquire a cow on short notice? Auntie Maggie inquires sympathetically).
Taichman assembles a stellar cast for the occasion of Gurira’s first play to premiere since Eclipsed, her celebrated drama about the Liberian civil war, now on Broadway. As Marvelous and Anne, sisters who chose different paths — one excelling by American standards, the other loyally Zimbabwean — Tunie and Taylor evoke the complexities of the immigrant family’s struggle. Set designer Clint Ramos’s hyper-detailed Midwestern home — lemon-yellow walls, Pottery Barn accoutrements — throws the characters’ distance from Zimbabwe into stark relief.
The bumpy Roora proceedings, eventually, prove so deeply provocative that they morph into another kind of ritual: a literal and metaphorical unearthing of roots that shakes Tendi’s, and everyone’s, sense of who they are. We learn why Donald and Marvelous left conflict-riven Zimbabwe in the first place, and how much they’ve built here in the States.
With its confession-packed climactic scene, Familiar is about as American as it gets. Our national dramatic heritage is, after all, constructed on the unearthing of buried traumas. In this, the play doesn’t surprise us so much as fulfill expectations (by the end, we’re all waiting for family secrets to erupt). Unlike the protagonists in many such dramas, though, Gurira’s family keeps moving and finds a way to laugh. The gentle surprise, here, is not in the confessing but in the carrying-on.
By Danai Gurira
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