'Familiar': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Joe Tippett and Ito Aghayere (L-R, rear), with (front) Myra Lucretia Taylor, Roslyn Ruff and Tamara Tunie in 'Familiar'
Sharp and enjoyable, even if the structural seams show.

Taking a breather from her day job on 'The Walking Dead,' Danai Gurira bows this domestic comedy-drama about conflicted cultural identity, the same month she makes her Broadway debut with 'Eclipsed.'

Danai Gurira, best known as Michonne on The Walking Dead, made a splash last fall with Eclipsed, her powerful portrait of Liberian women enduring oppression, which has moved to Broadway with Lupita Nyong'o in the ensemble. In Familiar, her first work set not in Africa but in the U.S., Gurira broadens her playwriting range with a comedy-drama about the gains and losses of cultural assimilation and dislocation, focusing on a Zimbabwean clan in Minnesota. The uneven play is stronger on amusing setup than turbulent follow-through, its second-act dramatic turn relying on forced revelations. But the characters and performances keep you glued through to the moving conclusion.

The playwright describes herself as a "cultural schizophrenic," born in Iowa but raised in Zimbabwe, where her academic parents returned in the early '80s, after the former British colony gained independence. College brought her back to the U.S. Her plays up to now — Eclipsed, The Convert and In the Continuum, the latter co-written and performed with Nikkole Salter — have dealt with African women and major issues impacting their lives, such as colonization, civil war, religion, forced marriage and HIV/AIDS. Gurira brings humor, compassion and an absence of preachiness to those weighty themes, earning her awards and commissions.

Much lighter by comparison, Familiar is a direct reflection of the writer's bifurcated cultural formation. But in the play's clash between African tradition and American modernity, between roots and adoptive home, it embeds a political perspective in the personal. It's inevitable to assume Gurira is channeling part of herself through Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), the artistically inclined youngest daughter of proudly integrated parents who left Southern Rhodesia during the war of independence.

Fresh from the cultural awakening of her first trip to "Zim," as the family calls its ancestral homeland, Nyasha returns from New York to wintry Minneapolis for the wedding of her older sister Tendi (Roslyn Ruff). A successful lawyer preparing to take the place of her father Donald (Harold Surratt) at the firm, Tendi is a born again Christian marrying white fellow congregant Chris (Joby Earle), who co-founded a global nonprofit active in human rights. They have taken a vow of abstinence until the wedding. The commander of the house is Tendi's biochemist mother, the splendidly named Marvelous (Tamara Tunie), who approves of the marriage even as she rolls her eyes about her daughter's "happy clappy church." Both the first-generation American girls were raised in the United Lutheran flock — more as a community gateway than a religious anchor — and neither of them was taught to speak Shona, their parents' native language.

Believing that her cultural heritage should be represented in her wedding ceremony, Tendi arranges behind her mother's back for her eldest auntie Annie (Myra Lucretia Taylor) to be flown in from Zim to conduct the roora, or bride-price ceremony. Annie's arrival causes Marvelous to lock herself in her bedroom in a huff while their younger sister Maggie (Melanie Nicholls-King) reaches for the wine bottle. Most of all, it ruffles Tendi herself, who gets way more earthy ancestral input than she bargained for when her aunt refuses to make cross-cultural accommodations. Annie also insists on a munyayi to mediate for the groom, forcing Chris to involve his unfiltered ex-military brother, Brad (Joe Tippett, hilarious).

The first act is consistently funny as director Rebecca Taichman and her accomplished actors trace all the fondness and friction of a believable family, right down to the somewhat stiff inclusion of the new outsider members.

The quarrelsome dynamic among the older siblings is neatly mirrored in the tension between Tendi and Nyasha. The former is a controlling over-achiever — and very much Marvelous' daughter, despite being closer to Donald — while the latter chafes at the constant criticism of her mother and sister over her unstructured life. Gurira takes gentle digs at the character by making her a "singer-songwriter and feng shui consultant," bankrolled by Daddy.

The give and take between Marvelous and Donald is also drawn with skill and affection. She's a matriarchal steamroller, though not lacking in warmth, and he happily takes the passive role in the interests of a simple life. However, signs of his quiet resistance can be perceived as he continues to replace a framed map of Zimbabwe on the wall of their otherwise entirely Western home (Clint Ramos did the immaculate two-level set) every time his wife removes it.

As the disruptive force that seeds chaos on the day of the wedding rehearsal dinner, Annie is a heavenly creation, and Taylor plays her with a fearless refusal to soften her rough edges, clucking imperiously at anyone who dares to contradict her. Just the way she rearranges the sofa and then positions herself at the center like a tribal chief on a throne is priceless. Even while talking up the spiritual importance of roora, she's unapologetically mercenary in her dealings, treating the ceremony as a personal shopping spree, with the groom's family expected to foot the bill. What makes her such a wonderful character is Gurira's refusal to judge her, even at her most intransigent, validating her behavior with cultural insights.

All this often hovers with a wink on the edge of sitcom, explosively so when Brad is put in charge of negotiations. But it's smart sitcom built around a scenario with cultural specificity, as well as parallels for any family that ever watched its ancestral traditions fading away.

Where the play runs into trouble is in its pedestrian unveiling of the Family Secret, which causes a mishandled pileup of sober recriminations, crises of conscience and declarations of hidden truth — littered with questionable plot details. It's a lurching shift that doesn't serve all the characters well, particularly Nyasha, who gets sidelined for much of Act 2, and Maggie, whose reflections feel perfunctory. And the always terrific Ruff is forced to play an undignified reaction that doesn't ring true for her tightly wound character, even under extreme stress. The scene seems to exist solely to echo the raucous physical comedy that closes Act 1.

The character whose arc benefits the most from the abrupt intrusion of the family's painful past is Marvelous. Tunie at that point peels back layers to show the hurt and anger that fuel this uncompromising woman's determination, also shedding light on the reasons she shut off the political engagement of her younger years like a faucet. Gurira draws the fractured family back together and has them reaffirm their roots in an affecting final scene that helps to minimize the structural bumps that precede it.

Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York
Cast: Ito Aghayere, Joby Earle, Melanie Nicholls-King, Roslyn Ruff, Harold Surratt, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Joe Tippett, Tamara Tunie
Director: Rebecca Taichman
Playwright: Danai Gurira
Set designer: Clint Ramos
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Presented by Playwrights Horizons