At first glance, the premise of Danai Gurira’s Familiar is a well-known story; the challenges of uniting two families via marriage have served as fodder for many a romantic comedy or sitcom. In Gurira’s take, though, the conflict stems more from the generational, cultural, and religious differences within the bride’s family exclusively, as wedding nuptials force them to cope with long-unspoken beliefs and truths. With depth, humor, and warmth, Gurira’s nuanced exploration of evolving customs and culture elevates this classic tale into a wholly new story.
The disjointed family falls on one of two sides of a cultural spectrum: those who have forgone tradition to conform to American ideals, and those more committed to celebrating their Zimbabwean values and customs. On the former side, bride-to-be and successful lawyer Tendikayi (Lanise Antoine Shelley) has always been focused on pleasing her parents; as first-generation Americans, Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Ora Jones) and her husband Donald (Cedric Young) pushed their eldest child to assimilate to American life and to find a steady, well-paying job.
Younger sister Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper), on the other hand, falls into the latter category; as a freelance artist and musician, Nyasha’s values differ tremendously from her sister’s, and she is much more interested in her family’s ancestry and traditions. When Tendikayi decides to include a Roora ceremony and, to facilitate it, her Aunt Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) from Zimbabwe, as part of her pre-wedding nuptials, the contrast between ideals brings family grievances to light.
As this tension unfolds, the play grapples a bit with its identity. At times, it’s a sitcom-esque romp playing on stereotypes and slapstick; but, in other, more effective moments, it’s a family drama interspersed with truth-driven humor that makes their connection feel all the more real.
Leading the realism movement in terms of performance is the always-impressive Jones, who plays the stubborn matriarch of the family with both strength and vulnerability. Following suit are Young, whose rises to the challenge of some intensely emotional scenes, and Jacqueline Williams as Margaret Munyewa, the middleman between her two divided sisters. And Kristen Robinson’s well-designed set only adds to these strengths, mirroring precisely the middle class Minnesota home and speaking volumes about the family’s ideals.
What begins as a familiar tale, then, proves to be so much more. Though the play may rely on a few cliches, we ultimately see the complexities of a multitude of perspectives--the difficulty in leaving one’s home country just as we witness the struggles of staying; the drive to become part of one’s new culture mixed with the reluctance to forget; and the difficulty of uniting all of these quandaries. Gurira’s marriage plot, then, is one which will speak to generations.
Review by Emily Schmidt
Familiar continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through January 13. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.