I couldn’t help it. Watching Danai Gurira’s Familiar, at Playwrights Horizons, I kept thinking of Henry Armetta, the Italian-American actor whose furious arm-waving and thick-accented volubility made him a Hollywood icon in the 1930s, a quintessential stereotype of the urban immigrant.
The Zimbabwean family members who gather for a wedding in Gurira’s play — reviewed favorably by Miriam Felton-Dansky in last week’s Voice — are by no means stereotypes. They’re lawyers and academics whose suburban affluence puts them miles ahead of the menials and first-stage entrepreneurs whom Armetta embodied: fruit vendors, janitors, barbers, shopkeepers, spaghetti-joint owners. Even so, there’s a link. The history of America is the history of immigration. Apart from Native Americans, every family in this country arrived here from someplace else. The white Anglo-Saxons got to tell their version of the assimilation story first and have tended, in recent years, to overlook some of its messier chapters: the religious wars and economic privations that drove them out of Europe; the conflicts with those they found already in possession of the place; the jostling among rival groups of newcomers for jobs, land, and status; and most of all, perhaps, their aching nostalgia for the old country from which they’d so eagerly uprooted themselves. (That last, I often think, explains why Americans so adore actors with British accents whether the actors are talented or not.)
Every immigrant group that has come to America has played out these familial tensions in domestic tragicomedy, whether on stage, film, radio, or TV: the Irish, the Italians, East European Jews and Slavs, Chinese, Greeks, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, South Americans, and more recently Filipinos and South Asians. From the 1870s, when Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart invented the misadventures of a tenement-Irish social club called the Mulligan Guard, down to the inter-ethnic and intra-family disputes of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights, new arrivals have played out, from every conceivable angle, the story of their search for identity in their new homeland, “the melting pot where nothing melted,” as the Rabbi in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America memorably calls it.
Because the battle for identity always ends in a draw — you can’t go back to the old country and you can’t hide its place in your heritage — works that tackle it tend to be hardy perennials, spawning sequels or living on in multiple media forms. Harrigan and Hart carried the Mulligan Guard through seventeen shows in a decade. Anne Nichols’s Abie’s Irish Rose, a 1922 comedy of ethnic feuding between Irish and Jewish neighbors, followed its original five-year run with two Broadway revivals, two film versions, and a radio series before evolving into the 1972 television sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie. Even in the Seventies, tensions over interfaith marriage still ran so high that the show provoked an avalanche of protests and even bomb threats; it became the highest-rated TV series ever to be canceled after a single season.
The mixed marriage in Familiar isn’t interfaith: The Chinyamwira family is Lutheran; their lawyer daughter, the bride, has joined an evangelical sect. But it is interracial, and you know complications will ensue when you hear the bride’s mother refer to the groom as “that little white boy,” just as surely as silent-movie audiences knew there’d be trouble when they saw posters advertising The Cohens and the Kellys in 1926. (Those two clans’ neighborly squabbles lasted through five sequels, including The Cohens and the Kellys in Africa, where they might have arrived in time for both patriarchs to cluck disapprovingly over the Chinyamwiras’ conversion to Lutheranism.)
Fortunately, Chris, the “little white boy” in question, is not only a liberal but an activist, co-founder of an organization that helps third-world nations restructure their debt. The near-inevitable trope in which somebody white makes an unthinkingly racist remark that louses up the whole situation never occurs; Gurira has more complex matters on her mind. Chris remains patient even when he finds himself obliged to participate in a roora, a Zimbabwean prenup ceremony in which the groom negotiates the price he must pay for the bride. Like the premodern European rituals in which it’s the bride’s dowry that must be negotiated, the rite becomes absurd when it collides with contemporary American reality: It isn’t easy for a young man in suburban Minneapolis in midwinter to round up the number of cows Zimbabwean custom demands. (A charming revival last fall of the 1923 Yiddish musical The Golden Bride displayed a similarly taxing test for the wealthy heroine’s suitors.)
Intermarriage is often, though not always, a key element in assimilation comedy because it represents a further step away from the old-country tradition and into…what? That’s precisely the issue: Is America the Enlightenment rationality of the Founding Fathers, the anything-goes anarchism of gun nuts and libertarians, the theocratic rigidity of fundamentalists, the sheer materialist greed of capitalism, or simply an inexplicable polyglot confusion containing elements of them all? In Familiar, as in earlier assimilation comedies like David Henry Hwang’s Family Devotions (1981), it’s the presence of a not-wholly-welcome visitor from the old country that poses the question. And here, as in Hwang’s play, the nature of the abandoned heritage is as problematic as the identity of the new culture: The corrupt, strife-torn Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe isn’t exactly a cozy repository of ancient tradition. Similarly, in Hwang’s play the visitor from China has survived the Cultural Revolution but remains a Maoist, no more interested in ancestor worship than the hero’s fanatically evangelical spinster aunts, who hold daily prayer services at home.
Inside the heritage, too, bound up in the family’s reasons for fleeing, are the inevitable family secrets, the never-mentioned matters they had hoped America would help them forget. Matters of parentage, of kinship, of what Grandfather really did as opposed to what we’re supposed to tell our kids he did. Every family has lore; all lore contains at least one lie. In luckier families, the lie may not surface, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fester, buried deep, waiting to crop up in some improbable — and most likely twisted — fashion.
No wonder, with all these possible sources of tension, the immigrant family is an enduringly juicy theatrical subject. No wonder the younger generation perpetually feels adrift, while the oldsters long for a former homeland idealized out of all similarity to the land that’s really there now. Clifford Odets got it exactly right in Awake and Sing (1935) when he made the grandfather retreat, not into a Russian or Russian-Jewish dream world, but into his prized recording of Caruso singing O Paradiso — an Italian tenor singing a French aria (by a Frenchified German-Jewish composer) about a beautiful, exotic world that exists only in the romantic imagination. That world happens to be Africa: The aria is from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, which has no more connection to any actual Africa than the brightly colored map that the father of Familiar keeps hanging on the wall and that his wife is constantly taking down — an action that, gaining force through repetition, comes to seem as terrifying as the moment when Odets’s Bessie Berger, in a fury, smashes her father’s Caruso records. For all the laughs that assimilation comedy stirs up, its ultimate thrust is tragic: In this nation — where some children of immigrants now advocate building a wall to keep immigrants out — we may never fully know who we are.