by JK Clarke
There’s a lot going on in Danai Gurira’s new play, Familiar, which opened Thursday at Playwrights Horizons. So much so that it’s initially very hard to figure out where this thing might be going. A homecoming in the midwest is taking place: a daughter is getting married, and has arrived home with her new groom; a husband is sitting in his La-Z-Boy chair like a typical American Dad, watching football and quibbling with his wife about home decor; and another daughter, the one who feels like she’s still a college student even though she’s an artist living in NYC, is lounging in the living room, still in her pajamas. It’s a fairly typical—and, yes, familiar, scene—except that this family is Zimbabwean diaspora, living a comfortable, upper-middle class lifestyle in suburban Minneapolis, having immigrated some 30 years prior. Donald (a steady, textured Harold Surratt), the father, is a partner in a law firm with a thriving practice; the marvelously named mother, Marvelous (Tamara Tunie), is an esteemed biochemist; and even the aunt, Margaret (Melanie Nicholls-King), is a respected professor of geology.
Everything about the family and the events unfolding before us shouts “assimilation.” Their names have been Americanized, a large casserole of lasagne is laid out for guests to snack on; they even try to be rah rah college football fans, though not quite getting the details right (after 30 years they should really have this down); and their 32-year-old daughter is a born-again Christian, abstaining from sex until marriage (really?); and their home, into which we’re peering (set design by Clint Ramos), is ripped right out of the pages of a Williams-Sonoma catalog. Oh, and did I mention that the groom-to-be is white? Lilly white, bearded, intellectual hipster (but Christian . . . weird) white. Then suddenly the Norman Rockwell atmosphere is irrevocably jarred when Auntie Anne (delightful Myra Lucretia Taylor, who steals the show) arrives unexpectedly (to most) from Africa. Auntie Anne is there to perform a roora (a traditional Mashona wedding ceremony), having been invited by the bride (Tendi – Roslyn Ruff) and groom (Chris – Joby Earle), in order to respect and honor Tendi’s culture and heritage. Naturally, chaos ensues.
There’s too much danger of revealing spoilers to go further into detail, but the upshot of Auntie’s arrival, as well as the arrival of Brad, the sincere stoner-bro brother of Chris (played with touching comic charm by Joe Tippett), is that the family is forced to face the crisis that comes at the intersection of heritage and assimilation into the American melting pot. It’s a story we’ve seen time and again, but largely through the lens of European or Asian communities who emigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it’s been awhile since Americans have witnessed up-close the sharp contrast between a family’s American experience and their very, very different cultural traditions. To see displayed the assimilation process of an African family (which involves both shedding, then re-embracing traditions) feels at first jarring, but then it becomes, well . . . familiar.
Perhaps one of the most exciting components of this play is seeing yet another great work by Danai Gurira (with a strong assist by director Rebecca Taichman, who ably manages the rapid fire, occasionally multilingual dialogue). Gurira, while best known for her role as the sword-wielding, zombie-killing badass Michonne on AMC TV’s The Walking Dead, is also the author of highly acclaimed Eclipsed, which just opened on Broadway following a hugely successful run at The Public. Her power lies in her ability to elucidate the complexities and intricacies of culture clashes with strong dialog and complex characters which is exciting not just prima facie, but also because of the massive popularity she brings from her Walking Dead role. It will very likely bring new audiences to the theater for these very important plays, and offer them an uncommon, novel and re-animating experience.
Familiar. Through March 27 at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street, between Ninth Avenue and Dyer). www.PHnyc.org
*Photos by Joan Marcus