Danai Gurira plays Michonne, the warrior in The Walking Dead. She co-starred in Black Panther, has won high-buck awards for writing and acting, and has founded or co-founded organizations for supporting women and African dramatic artists.
Familiar, her big-canvas comedy-drama now at the Globe, comes from personal experience. Gurira was born in Zimbabwe and moved to the Midwest when very young. When she attended her cousin’s wedding to a white male, her family’s “cultures merged and interacted and clashed.” She just had to put “this beautiful mess” on paper.
Donald and Marvelous Chinyarmwira fled from Zimbabwe and became naturalized American citizens in 1986. Judging by their home in a Minneapolis suburb, the immigrants have been blessed. The two-story interior is immaculate, its white walls and posh furnishings almost achingly tasteful. Donald (modest, engaging Danny Johnson) is a partner in a law firm. Marvelous (Cherene Snow, a huffy firebrand) has a PhD in biochem from M.I.T. You could search Walt Spangler’s elegant set high and low and find only one reference to their African heritage: a map of Zimbabwe on the mantle that resembles the Cheshire Cat. And every time Donald puts it there, Marvelous takes it down.
A sign of trouble? Insignificant data. There’s something of a skirmish when they watch TV. Marvelous wants Rachel. So does Donald, but once she leaves the room, he hot-foots the remote to a football game. When she returns she reacts, but when the team — most likely the Vikings — scores a TD, all is well again in House Beautiful.
If so, why does Marvelous' sister Margaret (Ramona Keller, bearing an internal grief) imbibe vast quantities of red wine? She says it’s her first glass of the day. Yeah, but she refills it every 15 minutes.
Youngest daughter Nyasha (spunky Olivia Washington) is a natural rebel. Forget her parents’ dreams of an academic degree, she’s an aspiring singer/songwriter and feng shui consultant on the side. She just got back from Zimbabwe fell in love with the culture. Now she sports a basketball-sized Afro and visions of her African roots. In this setting, she’s an irritant in more ways than she knows.
Their eldest daughter, 34-year-old Tendikayi (Zakiya Young, a stately meliorist) is lawyer about to marry Chris (Lucas Hall, kindness personified), a white man from Minnetonka, about 12 miles west of Minneapolis. The parents have no problem with the racial difference. He’s a Christian and has done human rights work in Africa (word has it Tendi and Chris have “saved themselves” for marriage). Although they’ve been going together for seven months, he has never met her parents. They will arrive soon, prior to the rehearsal dinner, with Tendi’s surprise.
Familiar weaves many themes: immigration and assimilation, family differences (first born, second born, etc.), diversity and similarities within. What joins them is one’s sense of identity. The play asks throughout: who are you? No, really? Are you a self-sculpted image? Are you how you vote? Your faith? Do you have roots? To paraphrase Ringo Starr: who are you when you’re at home?
Each character has a different relation to the past. Assimilated Marvelous has amnesia for anything before 1986. She’s an American — no African, no hyphen (“Our ancestors are dead”). Donald’s a hard read, since controlling Marvelous dominates him (“Are you the man of the house?”) Tendi’s a devout Christian, never been to Africa, but is curious about her roots. Nyahsa’s wide open to her heritage.
Tendi’s “surprise” is Marvelous’ older sister, Aunt Anne (Wandachristine, strident, funny). She stayed in Zimbabwe, survived the civil war, and has come to attend the wedding. Chris wants to insert a traditional Shona roora ceremony — “Bride price,” often with cows and clothing — into the proceedings. Aunt Anne wants a whole lot more. She applies stress to every fracture in the family. When Marvelous objects, Anne shoots back, “You think you are white now?” Never to be outdone, Marvelous shouts, “You want this little white boy from Minnetonka to bring us some cows?” Then Chris enters. What follows is an in-house culture war that’s also funny.
Somehow, the playwright has injected farcical elements into the piece. And they work. Under Edward Torres’ excellent direction, doors slam, actors stumble up and down the steep staircase, and the first act concludes not with a clash of arms, but, thanks to an intervention by Chris’ brother Brad (Anthony Comis, natural comedian), with, um, medicinal foreplay?
Familiar resists categorization: a comic family epic? And the ending, spurred on by a whopping revelation, demands a sequel. The news hits harder than the play can encompass. Each identity gets such a jolt, the wedding dinner could really get dramatic! The play’s a “beautiful mess” without the revelation.
The script has a minor flaw. A nasty blizzard’s blasting Minneapolis. Yet Nyasha goes out in just her pajamas — and stays out for comic effect. My brother Michael lives in Minnetonka (where Chris hails from). In such conditions, Michael says, the frostbite factor’s so severe that if you “stay out for any length of time, you’ll become like Lot’s wife.”
- Familiar, by Danai Guria.
- Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park.
- Directed by Edward Torres, cast: Anthony Comis, Lucas Hall, Danny Johnson, Ramona Keller, Cherene Snow, Wandachristine, Olivia Washington, Zakiya Young; scenic design, Walt Spangler, costumes, Alejo Vietti, lighting, Jason Lyons, sound, Robv Milburn and Michael Bolden, composer, Somi.
- Playing through March 3; Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. www.theOldGlobe.org.