BWW Review: FAMILIAR at Guthrie
Multitalented Danai Gurira-currently starring in BLACK PANTHER as General Okoye and well known as Michonne in "The Walking Dead" on television-is also a playwright of acclaim. Her 2009 script ECLIPSED was nominated for a Tony as Best Play in 2016, when the production featured the first all female black cast and creative team ever on Broadway.
Gurira's family drama FAMILIAR has just opened in a lavishly designed and carefully calibrated production at the Guthrie. It's familiar in many ways, as a well-made play on a single set (the interior of an upscale household in Minnetonka, MN) unrolling in real time, that dives into the secrets and dreams of a family, whose distinctive characters are all drawn together now for the wedding of the elder daughter.
What's refreshingly unusual about this conventional set up is that this particular affluent family is headed by first generation immigrants from Zimbabwe to the US. Dad, Donald Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks), is a partner in a very successful law firm. Mom, Dr. Marvelous Chinyamurindi (Perri Gaffney), is a biochemist. It's the afternoon of the rehearsal dinner for their elder daughter Tendi's (Shá Cage) wedding to Chris (Quinn Franzen), a white 'boy' who helps direct a human rights non-profit agency in Africa. Their second daughter, Nyasha (Aishé Keita), is an aspiring musician and feng shui consultant based in New York. She's just back from her first trip to Africa, and full of enthusiasm for the traditions of the homeland that her parents have almost completely abandoned.
The nuclear family is rounded out by two of Marvelous' sisters-one a stylish, thirsty, fully Americanized adjunct professor known as Aunt Maggie (Austene Van), and the other, Auntie Mwarimbe (Wandachristine), straight from Zimbabwe. Invited by the happy couple to honor tribal Shona tradition by conducting a "roora'" or bride price ritual, she's the catalyst who surfaces plenty the parental generation had chosen to leave buried heretofore. The final member of the company is the groom's younger brother Brad (Michael Wieser), called in to serve as Chris' spokesman in the ritual, a brash and practical guy just home from soldiering.
Gurira, who was born in this country but raised in Zimbabwe, traverses a terrific amount of emotional ground in two acts. Laugh out loud funny at times, the play also evokes real empathy for the impossible dilemmas of immigrants and their children. Choices made in one generation determine so much for the next. A sense of belonging is ever elusive. Losses are inevitable. And often, as here, dramatic family secrets complicate everyone's ability to pull together, and once revealed, require lots and lots of emotional recalibration.
Some standard scenes-like the bride's father, left alone with the groom, offering both advice and strong drink-anchor the play in familiar tropes, and give the Guthrie's mostly white, mostly affluent audience a chance to rest before taking on newer and more challenging revelations. Gurira's touch in balancing familiar familial tensions with more extreme cultural complications is deft.
These are emphatic people, and though Marvelous has done her best to raise her daughters to be 'Minnesota nice' and contained, each has left that behind in her own way. For instance, much to her mother's dismay, Tendi has abandoned the safe Lutheran church in which she was raised for a more effusive evangelical style of Christianity.
Tendi's faith is shared by Chris, her fiancé, and this has led them to abstain from sex until after they are married-something that may be motivating the unusual decision to wed during the Minnesota winter, which elicited chuckles from the local audience. It also prompts an extended sex scene, which some families might prefer not to share with their children. Hilarious for the audience, it is bravely performed by the actors, whose characters do not find this funny at all. They worked with Marcela Lorca, the Guthrie's Director of Company Development, as an 'intimacy coach' to find their way through this mine field of a scene, which also models wise and tender reconciliation-eventually.
Director Taibi Magar, herself Egyptian-American, has supported the cast in making bold character choices. Harvy Blanks, as dad, does a great deal with pauses and glances and little finger waggles while the women he loves combust around him. The triad of sisters in the older generation are well matched. Perri Gaffney, as mom, is strongly authoritative and a bit brittle at the outset but this gives way to a softer side as her control of the family slips away. Wandachristine, as the Zimbabwean catalyst, relishes her role as disruptor and ritual director. Austene Van is elegant and empathic and a little dysfunctional as she works to keep the fireworks from burning down the family. White actors Quinn Franzen and Michael Wieser ride the edge of humiliation at various moments while deploying charm and loving instincts at others. As the conflicted sisters in the younger generation, Shá Cage and Aishé Keita anchor the production in the here and now. Each performance is layered and complex.
We need more plays like this one, that mine humor and the familiar to bring the audience into a new relation with people they might see as 'other.' This effort avoids sanctimony altogether, to its credit. It treads close to oversimplification at times, though Gurira respects the dilemmas inherent in this family enough to leave much only temporarily resolved at the end. Without lecturing, Gurira and this company deliver a rollercoaster ride for the audience that helps us see, again and anew, how complicated and varied the immigrant experience that is so central to our national narrative really is.
Photo credit: Dan Norman