Familiar opens in a set that looks very much like the setting of countless contemporary Broandway and Off-Broadway dramas, that is, an upper middle class living room, complete with leather couches, rugs, bottles of liquor and an HD television set hanging on the wall. The first difference is, that unlike the aforementioned dramas, this house in Minnesota isn’t occupied by Caucasian characters about to engage in existential turmoil, but by a married Zimbabwean couple about to celebrate the wedding of their eldest daughter, a first generation American. The second difference, is that the play won’t be about their struggles in getting to where they are, or focus on their socioeconomic hardship, it is established that the matriarch called Marvelous (Tamara Tunie) and her husband Donald (Harold Surratt) are an MIT postgraduate and a successful lawyer, respectively. It is a sad fact that such differences must be even mentioned, but they are so unexpectedly delicious that they remind us why we need more shows like this.
Danai Gurira’s play is smart enough to recognize that stories about non-white families and groups are essential to enrich the American theatrical landscape, but the playwright is also smart enough to remember that beyond the search for tolerance and acceptance, plays about minorities, should also celebrate the things that make them unique. Therefore in Familiar what we see is a very personal battle between trying to figure out whether culture and tradition should stand in the way of forging a unique future, or if they are essential in forming it. It’s a smart, oft-profound work that leaves one with more questions than answers, but it’s a welcome breath of fresh air as well.
Part of the central struggle is represented comically in a recurring joke which sees Donald take down one of his wife’s paintings, to hang a map of Zimbabwe instead. Everytime she sees he’s done this, she proceeds to put back her artwork, efficiently showcasing the two struggles represented in what seems like such an innocent gesture; the compromises they’ve come to reach in their domestic partnership of decades, and also the rift that exists between them when the wife wants to feel “American”, and the husband can’t help but feel “Zimbabwean” still.
If this minimalistic gag could’ve perfectly sufficed as an entire cosmos on which Gurira could express her ideas, she populates this space with beautifully complex characters that support her sometimes conflicting views. We have for example Nyasha (a fantastic Ito Aghayere) the youngest daughter who has recently returned from a trip to Zimbabwe where she realized she knew very little about a place she thinks of as “home”. That she even thinks of Zimbabwe as home, without knowing the native language or having visited before, deserves a play of its own, which is how rich Gurira’s writing is.
The eldest daughter Tendi (Roslyn Ruff, seductive, ferocious and heartbreaking) must come to terms with her family not understanding her new Christian values and introducing her soon-to-be-husband Chris (Joby Earle) to the ancient Zimbabwean ceremony of “roora” which is to be conducted by her aunt Anne (a scene stealing Myra Lucretia Taylor), but to reveal more plot points would be a disservice to a play that demands attention and will reward the audience member with laughter, tenderness and most essentially things to take home and think about. For as much as its premise might touch on genre conventions that make it sound like My Big Fat Zimbabwean Wedding, there’s much more to Familiar than that; from its elaborate tableaux depicting upper middle class, to its sensitive, but transgressive takes on race and immigration, it’s a play that serves food for the soul and thought alike.