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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Melanie Nicholls-King, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Tamara Tunie, and Roslyn Ruff
Photo by Joan Marcus

Even if you leave your homeland, your homeland never entirely leaves you. This is the lesson the Chinyaramwira family learns, and alternately embraces and battles against, in Danai Gurira's play Familiar, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons. Unlike her previous plays, which include the AIDS drama In the Continuum and the revolutionary-minded Eclipsed (which is about to open on Broadway), this one is set entirely in the United States, specifically just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. But although the Chinyaramwiras escaped Zimbabwe three decades earlier, it still informs nearly every move they make—and both the most and least successful portions of Gurira's violently uneven play.

The action is anchored on the upcoming marriage of the eldest daughter of Donald and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Harold Surratt and Tamara Tunie), Tendi (Roslyn Ruff), to Chris (Joby Earle), a white American man whose work focuses on African human rights. Although both are devout Christians (much is made of their decision to, uh, wait until their wedding night), they're mindful of the traditions of Tendi's heritage and wish to honor them by performing a "roora" ceremony before the rehearsal dinner. This involves the groom-to-be approaching the eldest member of his betrothed's family and paying whatever price they set for the bride.

In Tendi's family, the eldest member is Marvelous's oldest sister, Anne, who still lives in Zimbabwe and has been ostracized from the family for years because... well, Tendi and Chris aren't exactly sure. But they're positive that things will work itself out as soon as everyone is together, so with the help of Marvelous's other sister, Margaret (Melanie Nicholls-King), they bring Anne (a brash Myra Lucretia Taylor) to the house just before the wedding and the expected cold fronts hit as new sparks of anger between various warring parties start flying anew. Exactly why that is will, of course, be revealed in due time (and thus not spoiled here).

Harold Surratt, Ito Aghayere, Joe Trippett, and Tamara Tunie
Photo by Joan Marcus

But for the first act, Gurira is more concerned with detailing the everyday relationships between the various members of the family, usually in lightly comic (or at least lighthearted) ways that suggest a traditional "odd couple" play in the making. We observe the natural tension between Marvelous, who thoroughly accepts American ideals and wants to erase Africa from the family's history, her more committed sisters, and even Donald, who keeps trying to put up a poster-size map of the country to keep thoughts of the land in the house. We see, too, how Tendi's younger sister, Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), longs to reconnect with Zimbabwe customs while also pursuing American liberalism, a "relaxed" social outlook that has caused irritation between the young women. And the end of the first act, which also introduces Chris's returned-military younger brother Brad (Joe Tippett), kicks off the roora with a frantic, and shockingly funny, culture-clash catastrophe.

Under the direction of Rebecca Taichman, this all moves with a lively fluidity, the serious issues underlying the rather frivolous plot emerging gently but potently as it becomes increasingly clear that Tendi and Chris are not getting exactly what they bargained for. The performances are roundly winning, with Tunie's sobering, stalwart bellwether of a Marvelous a fine central focus point that never comes across as more than a woman trying to do her best without all the tools she needs to succeed. Surratt, both more openly warmhearted and lower-key, contrasts her beautifully as an underdog waiting for his ideal opportunity to take charge. Aghayere and Ruff draw sharp, stark outlines around their characters as the two opposing sides of the second-generation American coin, while Nicholls-King and Taylor boldly balance out the uncompromising Marvelous. Though Earle and Tippett are locked in the least-interesting roles, they do quite a bit to make Chris and Brad at once comic and complex.

All of this, however, occurs before intermission. In Act II, Gurira all but abandons the creative understatement that defines the first act and relies on corny dramatic devices, cliché after hoary cliché, and, worst of all, completely scrambling her characters' brains to nudge her story from tiny to expansive. You must accept, for example, that Tendi can and will go from "God-fearing Jesus lover" to "heathen libertine" in one second flat, complete with the requisite swear words that she previously claimed deeply offended her; that Donald harbors feelings and desires far in excess of what his Act I personality suggests; and that all these smart, open, thoughtful characters would intentionally hold life-changing information from someone else for reasons that are spurious at best and unbelievable at worst.

Gurira's intent is obviously to upend the tropes she previously tweaked, and though that's not an original idea, it's hardly a bad one. But by going as far, as recklessly, as she does, she transforms a lovely, sincere piece about the long-lasting difficulties of assimilation into one that is rustily mechanical and stunningly emotionally false. I didn't buy any of the late-entry, whiplash-inducing turnarounds (including the most plausible of the lot, a quirky flirtation between two people who develop an unusual bond during the roora), and I was in everyone's corner going into the final stretch.

Though Gurira somewhat redeems herself with the final scene, which reignites the play's essential themes, no one emerges totally unscathed except for the designers. Clint Ramos (set), Susan Hilferty (costumes), and Tyler Micoleau (lights) have committed themselves to an unflinching suburban realism (aside from Anne's elaborate, colorful clothing, that is, but it's right for her) that leaves no mystery as to the blatantly ordinary circumstances under which this play unfolds. By departing from the actual, even with the aim of capturing some concrete truth, she allows her spin on a classic genre to lose its flavor and savor and become far too familiar for its own good.

Through March 27
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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