Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Playwright Danai Gurira was born in the U.S. to parents from Zimbabwe who then returned to their home country; she came back to the U.S. for college and stayed. As directed with sensitivity by Adam Immerwahr, Familiar sets up the conflict between parents who left their traditions behind to assimilate into American life and children who wish they hadn't, with a lot of heart and (sometimes raucous) humor.
Paige Hathaway's spacious two-story set welcomes audiences to the home of Donald (Kim Sullivan) and his wife Marvelous (Inga Ballard); the frost around the windowpanes shows that the time is winter. The older daughter, Tendi (Sharina Martin), a lawyer, is preparing to marry Chris (Drew Kopas), who works with the poor. Younger daughter Nyasha (Shannon Dorsey), an aspiring singer, recently visited Zimbabwe and complains about how little she knows about her culture and native language.
Tendi and Chris met at what her mother calls "one of those happy-clappy churches," but they also want to perform a traditional Zimbabwean betrothal ceremony where the groom proves his worthiness by negotiating a bride price. Marvelous is opposed to what she considers an antiquated custom, but her sister Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) has traveled all the way from Africa to participate.
While Martin displays the poise and confidence of someone who always knew where she was heading, it's Dorsey who shines. To be sure, Nyasha is the flashier role: she keeps her emotions close to the surface and has a way of acting erratically when under stress. She's well matched by Andy Truschinski as Chris' brother Brad, a military veteran who resents that their parents consider Chris the family success. (In other words, family battles are not unique to any one ethnic group, although the specifics may differ.) Karen Perry has designed costumes that range from the elegance of Anne's African dress to the goofiness of Nyasha's pajamas.
Ray (Tony Nam), the American-born son of Korean parents, always loved cooking and is now a chef, but his father (Glenn Kubota) never understood or appreciated his son's efforts. As Ray recalls, his father ate "only the cheapest and crappiest" food and grimly endured Ray's gourmet cooking, ignoring that it was created with love and skill. Now that his father is close to death, Ray tries to make a connection and realizes he and his father don't even have a common language.
Ray, who speaks little Korean, reaches out to Cornelia (Eunice Bae), a co-worker and one-time girlfriend, to contact his uncle in Korea (Song Kim), who speaks no English and arrives with the makings of a traditional soup. The other main character is Laurent (Jefferson A. Russell), a refugee from an African country, who has his own connections between food and identity.
The emotion is sincere and affecting, but the overall effect is a bit thin. Most of the action is muted, except for a few moments of magic realism (apparently Ray can guess exactly what his guest wants to eat, with the sole exception of his father), and the progression of scenes is measured and overly deliberate.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Olney Theatre Center