Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires


Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Familiar
Yale Repertory Theatre

Also see Fred's reviews of Nice Work If You Can Get It and Dancing Lessons and Zander's reviews of Driving Miss Daisy


Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Shyko Amos
Familiar, an engrossing world premiere play at Yale Repertory Theatre through February 21st, seems to be fully recognizable. Appearance aside, Danai Gurira's scripting, featuring complexity of family dynamics, is original while accessible. Director Rebecca Taichman enables the push-pull and eventual clash of generations within the culture of Zimbabwe (now based in a Minneapolis suburb) to catch and hold attention throughout.

Anyone sitting close to the stage will find designer Matt Saunders's interior of the upscale home to be wonderfully detailed and polished. The kitchen features white cabinetry while the living area includes plush peach-colored couches and varied sets of ceiling lights. The depth of the stage includes a rear entry door. Anyone would enjoy living is such a comfortable dwelling.

Tendikayi (Cherise Boothe), daughter of Marvelous and Donald Chinyaramwira (respectively Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Harvy Blanks) is about to marry Chris (Ross Marquand), who is white. Marvelous and Donald, perhaps sixty-something aged people, long ago moved to the American Midwest from Zimbabwe. She is a self-involved scientist and professor and he seems mostly concerned with making certain that no one else removes a painting of longtime Zim President Robert Mugabe from its rightful hanging position in the living room. Others tend to replace that artwork. Donald has the need to watch TV, too—Rachel Maddow or ballgames. Tendikayi, at 34, is an attorney who fares well.

Another daughter, Nyasha (Shyko Amos), is a vocalist and performing artist based in New York City. She has recently spent time in Zim and has come home for the wedding. Nyasha and her older sister Tendikayi have issues of their own. Nyasha is glib and appealing; late in the play she demonstrates a very sweet singing voice.

One of of Marvelous's sisters, Margaret Munyewa (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), arrives; Marvelous makes a disparaging comment about Maggie. Soon, Aunt Annie (Kimberly Scott), still living in Zimbabwe and dressed accordingly, comes in. Marvelous does not like her, and Annie is dismayed that Marvelous embodies her own assimilation into American society. Bold, loud, and grating, Annie insists that an estate has not been tended back in Africa. She is insistent with her opinions. Put it this way: quarreling with this character would not be optimal.

Toward the end of the first act, Brad (Joe Tippett), who is Chris's brother, makes an entrance. Wearing a Minnesota Vikings t-shirt, he is basic, friendly—and brings a huge, welcome dose of comic relief. When Nyasha suffers from hypothermia, Chris (in riotous fashion) saves her and the moment.

Playwright Gurira, while born in the Midwest, grew up in Zimbabwe. She has said that she was quite aware of life and times in America as she evolved so far away. Now, through the dexterity of her dialogue, she probes. From its opening sequence, Familiar is audience friendly. Americans understand the trappings and these are people, too, whom we know. It just so happens that they are originally from Africa and, truth be told, that is is enormously significant.

The family secret divulged in the second act is catalytic in both plot and theme of this play. It cannot be mentioned here as a spoiler. Better to leave this unsaid. The final hour of the production addresses freedom and struggle. As Donald and Marvelous and Annie speak of a time more than three decades in the past, that event transcends all else.

Gurira hooks theatergoers early with this play, one which certainly has moments of levity. This is a new work and it might be pared down a bit as, upon occasion during the first act, the proceedings ramble on just a bit. The essence of it, though, is intriguing as it ranges from intimate through moral through socio/political topics. It is insightful and its author obviously has pondered considerably.

This ensemble of actors is individually and collectively coherent and distinctive. Taichman's excellent and knowing direction fuels the show. Toni-Leslie James's outfits are terrific. The music provided by composers Somi and Toru Dodo enhances all.

Familiar continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through February 21st, 2015. For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.


Photo: Joan Marcus

- Fred Sokol


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