A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Gurira first achieved great success in 2005 as both co-creator and co-performer of In the Continuum about an American and Zimbabwean woman dealing with AIDS. New Yorkers now have a chance to see her work both on and off Broadway.
Eclipsed has transferred to Broadway after its Public Theater success (I'll be revisiting my original review after the official re-opening). Familiar , which is her first venture into the comedy-drama genre has now opened at off-Broadway's nurturer of new plays, Playwrights Horizon. While the Connecticut premiere was also directed by Rebecca Taichman, the current production has a new cast and design team.
I didn't see the play in its earlier permutation so it's hard to say how much tweaking it's undergone. At any rate, Familiar is Ms. Gurira's most personal play. Like many family dramas it's got three sisters and, though not flawless, it's fun, funny and often moving.
The current cast and design team make for a Class A theatrical experience, though it would be even more so with a bit of additional fine turning.
Unlike the large contingent of Africans who swarmed to the twin cities of Minnesota from Somalia during the 1990s, the Chinyaramwiras are long-time and successfully assimilated Zimbabwean-Americans. Donald (Harold Surratt) the family patriarch is a lawyer, his wife Marvelous (Tamara Tunie) a PhD research scientist. They're part of what's come to be known as the "fourth great migration" of Africans who came to the States to advance themselves through education. However, instead of returning to Zimbabwe many, like Donald and Marvelous became naturalized Americans. Except for one return trip during Robert Mugabe's rebellion and before his regime turned into a dictatorship, they've lived in the comfort of midwestern suburbia.
While you may not know anyone within this segment of hyphenated Americans, the themes pertaining to assimilation, conflicts between mothers and daughters and sisters who have chosen different life paths and beliefs are, true to Gurira's title, familiar. And so is the situation of the unanticipated crises erupting on the eve of a wedding.
There's no shortage of events and characters to insure that the pending wedding of 34-year-old Tendi (Rosalyn Ruff) and her white fiance Chris (Joby Earle) will set off plenty of tensions. Chief among them is the arrival of Aunt Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor) from Zimbabwe to conduct a traditional pre-nuptial ritual which the bride and groom and her father are all for, but her determinedly pro-Western life style mother wants nothing to do with. While mom approves of Tendi's success as a lawyer and doesn't object to a white son-in-law, she's less pleased about Tendi's abandoning her Lutheran upbringing for Chris's born-again congregation. And she wishes the estranged and opinionated Anne had stayed in Zimbawe.
The family's get together for a wedding dinner has also brought on the younger daughter Nyasha (Ito Aghayere). Nyasha has rebelled against her mother's push for conventional success with more artistic pursuits but she nevertheless still yearns for mom's attention and approval. And let's not forget Aunt Margaret (Melanie Nicholls-King), the sister between Anne and Marvelous whose pouring too many glasses of wine signals that Anne's arrival has stirred regrets about having raised her sons, to speak only English (as Marvelous and Donald did) and never taking them for a reconnecting visit to Zimbabwe.
There's also Chris's brother Brad (Joe Tippett, the only hold-over from the Connecticut production) who's been called aboard to make the payment that's part Anne's pre-nuptual ritual. As for Donald, he seems content to sit back and not involve himself in the various tensions. Yet, there's a framed map of Zimbabwe that he keeps putting up, only to have Marvelous replace it with a pretty floral print. That back and forth foreshadows that he too is going to have an explosive moment along with the final big surprise reveal that shatters the assured bride's assured persona.
Does all this make this wedding story just too stuffed with plot complications. It does and it doesn't.
On the plus side, the playwright has peppered her script with lots of smart dialogue (including some exchanges in Zimbabwe's Shona language) and generally proves herself to be adept at humor as tragedy — giving us a unique mix of familiar, easy to identify with inter-personal situations through the lens of a family with a less familiar cultural background. The risky switch from mostly comic scenes to big and more serious revelations is accomplished quite effectively: Act one ends with brother Brad dramatically and most amusingly saving Nyasha from almost dying of hypothermia which leads into a wonderfully funny and engaging second act opening scene between the recovered Nyasha and her rescuer.
The actors all inhabit their roles convincingly — especially Tamara Tunie as the controlling "all-American"mom. . . Harold Surratt as the not so docile spouse. . . Myra Lucretia Taylor as the formidable proponent for honoring our cultural heritage. . . and Joe Tippett, who makes the seemingly minor role of Chris's brother a major pleasure.
The production values couldn't be better. Clint Ramos's spacious suburban home typifies the American Dream of the good life. Tyler Micoleau's lighting of the view outside the double height windows evokes Minnesota's wintry exterior and Susan Hilferty has dressed everyone just so.
In the room for improvement department: the business about replacing the neutral painting with the Zimbawe map could be down played a bit and the pre-nuptual ceremony goes on way too long.
Despite these flaws Familiar continues Ms. Gurira's trajectory as an all-around wonder woman. Besides her playwriting, she's a gorgeous looking successful actor. If you haven't seen her in the AMC series The Walking Dead, or on stage in August Wilsons Joe Turner's Come and Gone or in Shakespeare in the Park's Measure for Measure, check out the photo accompanying her informative playwright's notes. And while you're doing so, be sure to read the notes in that program that put Familiar in historic context.