by John Stoltenberg
When the 2018 Women’s Voices Theater Festival comes to a close and the hits to emerge from it are tallied, Danai Gurira’s comedy Familiar will surely be on the shortlist.
Gurira’s play Eclipsed—a brutal story about a Liberian rebel war lord’s sex slaves and a female Liberian freedom fighter’s attempt to rescue them—had a hugely successful run on Broadway, where it has to have been the most politically gripping play about African women ever seen on the Great White Way. With Familiar, Gurira continues her focus on women of African ancestry, but this time the politically gripping story she tells is tucked inside—wait for it—a gut-bustingly funny comedy set in a suburb of Minneapolis.
The storytelling starts with Set Designer Paige Hathaway’s eye-filling two-level interior of a middle-upper-class home, tastefully decorated in white and beige. It’s like a whitewashed canvas awaiting bold strokes of color (which the play more than delivers). The home belongs to a sixty-something married couple—he’s a lawyer, she’s a biochemist—who are emigres from Zimbabwe, but there is not a hint of Africa in the decor. There are however icicles hanging from the exposed roof and frost on the windowpanes, as it’s subzero Minnesota winter. The look is coolly assimilationist, Architectural Digest style.
Oh, but there’s a carved antique Christian cross on the wall. And Donald, the husband (a stalwart Kim Sullivan), attempts to hang a map of Zimbabwe, but his wife, Marvelous (a marvelously authoritative Inga Ballard), wants it taken down. The conflict that’s to heat up between Western values and African traditions has only just begun—and already laughter is rolling sitcom style.
Donald and Marvelous’s younger daughter, Nyasha (a delightfully droll Shannon Dorsey), has flown in from New York, where she’s been trying to make it as a singer-songwriter and feng shui consultant. To try to better understand her Zimbabwean roots, she recently visited Zim, as she calls it; but having been raised by parents who completely Americanized her, she did not know the language and could not connect.
The occasion is the wedding of Donald and Marvelous’s older daughter, a successful lawyer named Tendi (a strikingly nuanced Sharina Martin) to Chris (a charmingly earnest Drew Kopas), who co-founded a nonprofit that does human-rights work in Africa. They met cute in a charismatic Christian congregation. As it happens, Chris is Caucasian (“a white boy from Minnetonka”), and the play mines their cross-cultural contrast for much enjoyable humor. Interestingly, the values and culture clash that really erupts in the play is not so much about the wedding couple as it is about bitter differences and animosities among Marvelous and her two sisters.
The younger sister, Margaret (an amiable Twinkie Burke), has a Ph.D. with no career to show for it and likes to drink. Marvelous has welcomed her for the wedding. But Marvelous is outraged when her older sister, Anne (a force-of-nature Cheryl Lynn Bruce), arrives from Zimbabwe to officiate at a traditional roora—the so-called bride-price ceremony—which Tendi and Chris have opted for out of respect for Tendi’s forebears. Marvelous is adamantly opposed and sparks fly.
Gurira uses that disagreement over roora to precipitate some very funny scenes and some very sobering ones, and both sorts cut to the quick of her theme. Not a punchline or sight gag is untethered to her purpose. For instance, in roora the groom must have a go-between to negotiate with the bride’s family how much he owes them. For this task Chris taps his younger brother Brad (the agreeably goofy Andy Truschinski). There ensues a hilarious scene in which both white guys are on their knees awkwardly clapping and dropping offerings of cash at Anne’s bidding into a wooden bowl. The turnabout subtext of the ritual is priceless.
There is also a scene between Brad and Nyasha that closes Act I that is so howlingly funny it turned intermission on opening night into a buzzy party.
Among the play’s more serious moments are some trenchant and timely speeches about the price paid by immigrants who forsake their cultural identity for the sake of success and assimilation. For instance:
ANNE: You people want to sit in this country and act like Zimbabwe no longer exists? IT EXISTS!! And it is where YOU are from! You people haven’t been back ONCE! As though there is some other land where you were birthed and suckled! You want to keep these whites happy, FOR WHAT? They are going to take our daughter to be in their family! She is going to lose her name, she is going to start having … children that will talk like her, (imitating an American accent) ‘MAWM, I want to go to the MAWWL MAWM! I want PIZZA!’ … They will be asked where they are from and they will say, MINESOOOTA, and that will be IT!
The most pivotal character in the play turns out to be one who never appears; we only hear of her. She is deceased. Her name is Florie. She was a fourth sister (Auntie Florie to Nyasha and Tendi), a Zimbabwean liberation fighter, “very involved in the armed forces that were fighting the colonial regime.” Says Auntie Anne: “She was a revolutionary really. Very, very brave.” Figuratively Florie is also a sister to the liberation fighter in Eclipsed.
Costume Designer Karen Perry supplies bold dashes of bright colors for the three sisters and Tendi. Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills and Sound Designer Justin Schmitz subtly create a realistic ambiance. And the work of Director Adam Immerwahr is exceptionally impressive. Not a breath is out of place, not a beat does not take us into the heart of this phenomenal play.
It is Gurira’s great gift to be able to regale us with torrents of humor in easily recognizable family squabbles—set in the snow-white American Midwest of all places—and at the same time anchor her play firmly in the political reality of her characters’ ancestral home. Near the end, she then tops it off with a big family-secret reveal. On the face of it, that heart-stopping surprise might seem to border on melodrama. But actually, brilliantly, it brings home and personalizes an ongoing identity and liberation struggle that for each of her characters is precisely her point.
Look for Woolly Mammoth’s production of Danai Gurira’s Familiar at the top of a lot of must-see lists this season. It is, quite simply, a comedic masterpiece.
Running Time: About two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Danai Gurira (Playwright)
Danai Gurira is an award-winning playwright and actress. The author of Familiar, The Convert, and Eclipsed, Danai currently stars as Michonne in AMC’s critically-acclaimed original series The Walking Dead. Danai’s other film credits include Black Panther, Mother of George, The Visitor, 3 Backyards, and Restless City.