Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The spin is that this is the elegant home of Marvelous and Donald, immigrants from Zimbabwe who left their homeland at the time the civil war that created black-African ruled Zimbabwe from white-ruled Rhodesia. Marvelous is a Ph.D. bio-chemist working on DNA research and Donald is an attorney. Settling in, of all places, Minneapolis, they would seem to have attained the American dream. In this beautiful home they raised two lovely daughters: the older, Tendi, is an attorney like her dad. The younger, Nyasha, is a singer-songwriter and feng shui consultant, though prospering at neither.
The play takes place on the day Nyasha has returned from a life-changing trip to her parents' homeland and Tendi is about to marry Chris, an upstanding white man from Minnetonka, who heads up a non-profit that works on human right issues in Africa. Joining them are Marvelous' sister Margaret, the youngest who is also a Ph.D. but flounders with adjunct teaching positions while making a living from direct-sales gambits, and oldest sister Anne, a retired nurse who remained all her life in Zimbabwe.
This is a wonderful set-up for a domestic playdrama or comedy, either way would work. Lives are upended by a major life event and by eye-opening travel. Gurira, who was born in Grinnell, Iowa but raised in Zimbabwe before returning to the U.S. to attend Macalaster College in St. Paul, uses that premise as a foundation to dig more deeply, examining the intersection of what is familiar and unfamiliar to us, where our cultural inheritance and familial history may be at great odds with the present reality of our lives.
The schism in this family's soul is triggered by Anne's arrival. She holds fierce allegiance to the old customs and has been asked by Tendi and Chris to conduct a "roora," the ancient bride-price ceremony, in which Chris must offer a generous gift in exchange for Tendi's hand. Back home this would be a cow, but Anne consents to adjustments. Also needed is a "munyai," a go-between to work out the bride price, as Chris is forbidden to speak directly to Tendi's family on the matter. Put on the spot, Chris suggests his younger brother Brad, who is just out of the military and "a little brash" but will have to do.
In the play's early scenes, Gurira unspools the comic potential of the situation, finding humor in the conflicts among family members, their enthusiasm for televised sports, and Chris and Brad's inept but earnest attempts to carry out their part of the roora. While the laughs are plentiful, she does not shy away from the real questions of identity, community and self-worth that emerge. In the second act, those conflicts and questions erupt, subduing the humor, and there are challenging reckonings to be made. Never is there a question of whether these family members love one another. The question becomes what else is needed for them to persevere, to maintain their individual and collective identity.
Gurira writes dialogue impeccably, capturing the way people speak in different situations. She has constructed each of Familiar's two acts as continuous scenes played in real time, capturing the depths and heights of the human condition without a false note. On occasion, Gurira's four elder charactersMarvelous, Margaret, Anne and Donaldspeak in their native Shona tongue, sometimes mixing English and Shona words in the same line. No to worry, it is always evident by context what they are expressing. This mixing of language is common among those whose lives are between cultures, and adds heat and realism to their conversations. It is masterful writing, brought to stirring life by Taibi Magar's forthright and propulsive direction. Magar ensures that each character is given their due, the light within each is brought forth to illuminate the story.
Every actor on stage is superb. Perri Gaffney as Marvelous conveys her steely shell and inner vulnerability. She captures the immigrant whose painful memories have forced her to cut all cords to her homeland, putting all of her energy into success on American termsthe sudden change of voice she affects when on the phone with Chris' mother is classic. As Donald, Harvy Blanks excels as the dutiful husband standing by his wife's ambition, pumped up over the game on TV, yet concealing a drive to recapture something lost. Wandachristine is a joy as Anne. She brings out the inherent humor in the role while never diminishing respect for this strong, uncompromising woman. Austene Van conveys grace as Margaret, managing the reality that she has not had the success in America to which she aspired.
Sha Cage's Tendi is a searing portrait of a bright, confident young woman brought face to face with harsh truths. There is a sweet chemistry between Cage's Tendi and Chris, as played by Quinn Franzen, that instills confidence in their marriage in spite of the cultural and familial baggage. Franzen is every bit the earnest non-profit leader, smart but unassuming, with the ability to blush adorably on cue. As Brad, Michael Wieser is aptly clueless, with some of the funniest lines, but when, in a tense moment, he cuts through the emotional minefield, Wieser shows us Brad surprising himself by his capacity to deliver just what is needed.
With the cast speaking with varying degrees of accents, and at times in Shona, hats off to vocal coaches Lucinda Holshue and Kecha Nickson, and University of Minnesota Doctoral candidate Nicholas Nychega's instruction on spoken Shona for bringing forth authentic voices to make the play not only speak, but sing. There are also wonderful moments when the family, even Marvelous, breaks out in spontaneous displays of their African roots through dance and ululation, and early on and again at the end of Familiar, Nyasha plays an mbira she acquired in Zimbabwe, delighting in having carried a piece of her ancestral land back to Minnesota. The play's title comes from a song she wrote for the mbira, calling for a return of things that are "familiar."
Familiar is the kind of play that makes going to the theater not only an entertainment but an ennobling experience. The specificity of the culture, language and place magnify its power, creating a completely real world, while it raises issues that have universal bearing on our county, a nation of immigrants, and on families that struggle to maintain their illusions. Familiar raises these issues with humor, with wisdom, and with heart. It does not suggest simple solutions, but illustrates the process, both heartbreaking and uplifting, by which decade after decade of new arrivals to our shores have negotiated the balancing act building a new life without obliterating the old. I give this play, and this production, the highest of recommendations.
Familiar, through April 14, 2018, at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $29.00 - $77.00. Senior (age 65+), student and 30 & below discounts available. Rush seats 30 minutes before performance, when available, from $15.00 - $30.00, cash or check only. For ticket information call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Danai Gurira; Director: Taibi Magar; Scenic Design: Adam Rigg; Costume Design: Karen Perry; Lighting and Projection Design: Tom Mays; Sound Design: Scott W. Edwards; Vocal Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Assistant Vocal Coach: Kecha Nickson; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Stage Manager: Justin Hossle; Assistant Stage Manager: Todd Kalina; Assistant Director: Lindsey C. Samples; Design Assistants: Alice Fredrickson (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound).
Cast: Harvy Blanks (Donald Chinyaramwira), Shá Cage (Tendi), Quinn Franzen (Chris), Perri Gaffney (Dr. Marvelous Chinyamurindi), Aishé Keita (Nyasha), Austene Van (Prof. Margaret Munyewa), Wandachristine (Anne Mwarimba), Michael Wieser (Brad).