BWW Review: FAMILIAR at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is a Must-See
A few of my favorite shows staged at Woolly Mammoth over the last decade or so have one thing in common - they were all written by Danai Gurira. Whether it was In the Continuum, Eclipsed, or The Convert, each offered a unique theatergoing experience thanks to the skillful writing, compelling story, and unique insights about cultural identity. The Tony Award-nominated writer's latest work, Familiar, follows the same trend. It's a powerful work and one of the strongest offerings to date in the ongoing Women's Voices Theater Festival. Under Adam Immerwahr's impeccable direction, a supremely talented cast brings out the best of the exceptional script.
Familiar made its premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre and an off-Broadway production followed at Playwrights Horizons. Inspired by Ms. Gurira's own experience as the daughter of Zimbabwean-American immigrants and other friends and family, what makes this play unique is that it does not fit squarely in the category of a family drama, a play about culture clashes, or a play about the plight of African immigrants in America. Initially, it seems like the audience will be treated to story about the implications of marrying someone who is not quite like you or your parents, and/or a story about a first generation, free spirit young American named Nyasha (Shannon Dorsey) trying to get in touch with her ancestral roots. However, neither of those scenarios truly capture what this play is about. In Gurira's masterfully constructed and intricately layered play, the dynamics within the family are just as important - and perhaps even more important - on the wedding rehearsal day as the dynamics between the family unit and Chris (Drew Kopas), the white boy that Tendi (Sharina Martin) is going to marry. Cultural collision and assimilation are key focus, but not in the singular, straightforward way you might expect. The themes are relatable (familiar, if you will), but they also arise out of a very specific situation that might not be as familiar to many patrons. The play achieves a perfect balance of familiar and unique.
Set in modern day Minnesota, Nyasha has just returned from a trip to Zimbabwe ("Zim" for short) and she's eager to get even more in touch with her roots. She lives in New York City, working as a Feng Shui artist and singer-songwriter of all things, but she in town she's visiting her successful and highly educated parents Marvelous (Inga Ballard) and Donald (Kim Sullivan). Her older and more conventionally successful lawyer sister Tendi is about to get married to Chris, a religious "do-gooder" who is certainly not Zimbabwean. Other family members have also descended on the house, including Marvelous' sister Margaret (Twinkle Burke) and - as a bit of surprise to some - her older sister Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), who has flown in from Zimbabwe. When they're all in the same room, the living room is a study in contrasts and not just in the way everyone is dressed (Karen Perry designed the costumes, which highlight each person's multi-faceted identity).
Raised as an English-only typical Midwestern who played softball and the like, Tendi is nonetheless interested in having Anne perform roora, an ancient ritual in which the groom's family offers a "bride price" (similar to a dowry), before her wedding rehearsal. She thinks it will help her acknowledge her roots although, like a typical twenty-something "type A" in America, she wants it done as quickly as possible. Anne has other ideas, however. Brad (Andy Truschinski), Chris' all-American, somewhat screwup brother, gets tossed into the proceedings in more ways than one. In those few hours before the rehearsal dinner, everyone learns more about themselves and their family than they probably all expected. Closely held secrets are spilled, and answers to the question of "who am I and where do I belong?" become even messier for some.
An incredibly strong cast deals with all of the twists and turns of the script and alternating moments of humor and serious discussion with ease. There's not a weak link in the bunch and the easy (familiar), unforced interaction between them pays off in dividends, especially when tensions rise in the Chinyaramwira's upper middle-class home (impeccably designed by Paige Hathaway).
The strong script, cast, and direction makes this production a must-see. In fact, I would call it one of the best I've seen this season in the DC area.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
FAMILIAR plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company - 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC - through March 4, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.