By Tulis McCall
I am not a person to cry at the theatre. Too busy soaking in what is going on. Still, this one got me. Familiar, by Danai Gurira now at Playwrights Horizons is not a perfect play. It is uneven and rangy. The position of central character appears to change from moment to moment. There are more plots than you can shake a stick at. Still, through all of that there comes a clarion call. These people are us and we are them.
Donald and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Harold Surratt and Tamara Tunie) are living the American Dream in a land as far away from their birth place, Zimbabwe, as they could get and still be on the same planet. They live outside Minneapolis and it is winter outside this amazing house designed by Clint Ramos that takes up every square inch of the stage. Donald is a lawyer and Marvelous is a biochemist. There are some serious brain cells in this family tree. Their oldest daughter Tendi (Roslyn Ruff) is getting married to Chris (Joby Earle) a white man who seems to have taken all the sweet and gentle pills in the immediate vicinity, leaving the Chinyaramwira family in short supply. The family is gathering for a rehearsal dinner with Chris’s family. Marvelous wants everything to be perfect. Tranlation: appetizers for days and everything polite and near-white. Or homogenized. The last thing she wants is any reminder that Zimbabwe is or ever was a hefty part of their lives.
Into this situation marches Marvi’s sister Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor) who is not only still a resident of Zimbabwe, she is here to perform roora, the “bride-price ceremony”. She is there at the request of Tendi, and her presence is pretty much unwelcome by Marvi. Marvi, however, is in the extreme minority. Everyone else is onboard, including Chris and Tendi’s younger sister Nyasha (Ito Aghayere) who has just returned from a visit to Zimbabwe as well as Marvi’s youngest sister Margaret (Melanie Nicholls-King). As the details of the ceremony unfold the need for a spokesperson introduces us to the final addition to the gathering, Brad (Joe Tippett) Chris’s brother who is such an open and honest misfit that he alone lowers the temperature of the gathering considerably.
Tendi wants the ceremony roora. Marvelous does not. Lines are drawn and the battle begins. As the conditions of the ceremony are revealed there is a decided WTF attitude that Anne draws to herself. However, in a shining example of what a thoughtful and wise writer Gurira is, Anne defends not only the ceremony but the people who stayed behind in Zimbabwe who are still fighting the good fight. It is a bold scene that leaves us all squarely in the middle, which is where Gurira wants us.
Although this is a comedy, much of which is provided by Mr. Tippett, there are deep roots here that extend centuries back. Gurira’s specificity is so refined that ultimately this story reaches across barriers of race and clutches us. With the exception of our Native Americans we are all desended from people who left home to come here. They left behind traditions and heritage. They left behind family, friends, loyal dogs and crafty felines. They left behind spring blossoms and winter fireplaces. And all or most of what they left behind stayed there. Once in America they gave up or hid their heritage because of fear of being left out. Or because they married someone from a different culture. Or because they were surrounded by so many of different cultures that their customs got watered down.
Who are we now? Homogenized and “American”? Or are we the lumpy collection of misfits who arrived clutching everything they owned in their hands? Are we our ancestral heritage? Is there room at the table for corned beef and cabbage along with customs that were in place before the Bible was written? Gurira lays these questions out like a smorgasbord and invites us to feast.
We are more familiar to one another than we know. It is this vantage point from which Gurira writes. Contrary to what those hogging the national news spotlights would have us believe, we are all keepers of the same flame – the one that lights the complicated paths of navigating our lives.
Familiar By Danai Gurira; directed by Rebecca Taichman
WITH: Ito Aghayere (Nyasha), Joby Earle (Chris), Melanie Nicholls-King (Margaret), Roslyn Ruff (Tendi), Harold Surratt (Donald), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Anne), Joe Tippett (Brad) and Tamara Tunie (Marvelous).
Sets by Clint Ramos; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Tyler Micoleau; sound by Darron L West; hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan; production stage manager, Cole P. Bonenberger; associate artistic director, Adam Greenfield. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director; Leslie Marcus, managing director; Carol Fishman, general manager. Through April 10th at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.