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Theatre in Review: Familiar (Playwrights Horizons)

Harold Surratt, Ito Aghayere, Roslyn Ruff, Tamara Tunie. Photo: Joan Marcus

We already know that Danai Gurira is a woman of many parts, what with her day job hunting zombies on the television series The Walking Dead and her parallel career as an acclaimed playwright, having just moved Eclipsed, her scalding account of African sex slaves, to Broadway. Now it turns out that she is a highly versatile writer, too. Familiar, her new work, is the polar opposite of Eclipsed -- a warm and often hilarious family comedy with a number of serious ideas on its mind. Even when it starts to get a little top-heavy with subplots, it remains an engaging work filled with characters we rarely see on our stages.

We are in the home of Donald and Marvelous, immigrants from Zimbabwe living the good life in a suburb of Minneapolis. He is a lawyer and she is a genetic researcher, and by the look of their home, a two-level interior stunningly designed by Clint Ramos, they have done very well, indeed. They have two daughters; the fiercely organized and even more fiercely put together Tendi is a lawyer -- she works with her father -- and a born-again Christian; the rather more scattered Nyasha is a composer and feng shui expert based in Manhattan; she's still not fully financially independent of her parents, a fact of which Tendi takes acid note. It is the day of Tendi's wedding to Chris, a kind, good-natured human rights advocate; the surprises begin when Marvelous learns, to her extreme displeasure, that Tendi and Chris (who is white) have agreed, in addition to their big church wedding, to undergo a roora, a traditional African ceremony, at home, presided over by Anne, Marvelous' sister, who has arrived from her home in Zimbabwe.

The last person Marvelous expected to see was Anne, whom she cordially loathes -- and the feeling is mutual. To everyone's surprise, the ceremony, which involves fixing a bride price, isn't just an empty ritual -- in Africa, grooms traditionally brought goats and chickens to pay for a bride -- but comes with a hefty list of cash and goods that Anne intends to take home with her. In one of the play's more gripping arias, Anne lashes out at Marvelous, the executor of her late father's will, for neglecting the family estate, even as the Zimbabwean economy collapses under the weight of impossible inflation; then she drops a little bombshell that threatens to bring the day to a halt and blow the family apart.

Gurira has plenty of amusing observations to make about the family's Americanized ways, which Nyasha, who has just returned from Zimbabwe, notes with comic despair. Marvelous is a devotee of Rachel Maddow, for example, and everyone rushes to the TV when the football game is on, even as Nyasha feebly tries to explain the global popularity of soccer. Marvelous rides herd on them all, dispensing comments from her extensive fund of disapproval. "Did you keep that strapless contraption?" she asks Tendi, who replies, "You mean my Vera Wang gown? Yes, mother. I kept it." Chris enters during a discussion of the roora, just in time to hear Marvelous announce, "You want this little white boy from Minnetonka to bring us cows?" Lecturing Nyasha about the perils of running from one man to another, Marvelous says, "Before your know it, your genitals are like bus stops -- one leaves, another arrives!" Before the day is over, Nyasha will court a bad case of frostbite, which is addressed in the most humiliating way; Tendi, reeling from the shock of learning a devastating secret, will attempt to take Chris on the couch, throwing her virginity pledge to the four winds; and Marvelous will learn that she doesn't really know Donald as well as she thinks she does.

Underlying this chaos is the fact that the family has one foot in the US and the other in Zimbabwe, never feeling totally at home in either place. Marvelous was determined to raise her children as totally American, and if she looks askance at Nyasha's cultural explorations, she takes an equally dim view of Tendi's "happy clappy" religiosity. Margaret, sister of Marvelous and Anne, sits in the corner, helping herself to another glass of wine, wondering if her sons, from whom she is estranged, would have been happier in Africa. Anne treats her Westernized relatives with scorn, all but accusing them of abandoning their country and its traditions. And lurking behind everything is the memory of a fourth sister, a political activist, who died, leaving a legacy that only now, forty years later, are they coming to grips with.

Familiar is filled with sharply amusing observations mixed with a real understanding of even the spikiest and most tactless of its characters. Gurira has so much going on narratively -- including a secret plan of Donald's; Nyasha's flirtation with Chris' brother, Brad, a soldier with a history of personal screw-ups; Nyasha's failed attempts at being treated like an adult by Marvelous; Tendi's relationship with Chris; and that aforementioned bombshell secret -- that she struggles to keep track of it all. But the director, Rebecca Taichman, proves remarkably skillful at keeping all the narrative balls in the air, and she has the help of a very fine cast.

Ito Aghayere's Nyasha is a perpetual seeker, totally at a loss in a household of driven, well-put-together women. ("Did you read my blog yet?" she keeps asking everyone, to little response; she is also highly defensive about that feng shui career.) Joby Earle is immensely appealing as Chris, even as he suddenly finds himself being practically assaulted by the woman he loves and asked to turn $10,000 over to the aunt she has never seen before today. Melanie Nicholls-King is touching as Margaret, who collaborated in bringing Anne to America and is living to regret it. Roslyn Ruff's Tendi is equally formidable, whether busily planning her wedding down to the last detail or brutally telling Nyasha that it is time to grow up. Harold Surratt is likable as Donald, who keeps retreating to the den with his decanter of scotch and the nearest available friend. Myra Lucretia Taylor's Anne, clad in African dress, passes through Marvelous' living room like a visiting dignitary, extremely displeased with what she finds. Joe Tippett is appealing as Brad, who makes common cause with Nyasha as the black sheep of their respective clans. As Marvelous, Tamara Tunie earns plenty of laughs with her tart assessments of her loved ones, but she is also a figure of considerable strength when she explains why she left Zimbabwe and never looked back.

In addition to Ramos' set design, Susan Hilferty's costumes run the gamut of styles, finding a highly individualized look for each character without being too fussy about it. (Cookie Jordan's hair and wig designs are very helpful in this regard.) Tyler Micoleau's lighting and Darron L West's sound are equally solid.

Familiar is a little unwieldy at times, and certain passages, especially those in which Nyasha frets about her lack of parental approval, can seem a little tired. But much of the time Gurira presents a family that is both intriguingly exotic and often hilariously recognizable. A real appreciation of the pain of exile is seamlessly blended with the farcical details of a wedding day gone wildly wrong. Gurira remains one of our most interesting playwrights. -- David Barbour

(3 March 2016)

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