REVIEW: ‘Familiar’ at Steppenwolf is Danai Gurira’s comedy about a Zimbabwean-American family divided

Spread This News

By Chicago Tribune

THE aptly named “Familiar”, now at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company under the skilled direction of Danya Taymor, is a fine example of the kind of play that many well-educated children of immigrants to these United States come to write — the work paying tribute to their parents, the generation that worked and struggled so that opportunities might flow to their kids, offspring who then in turn worry that they’ve paid too great an assimilative price for their own Stateside success.

Successful doesn’t fully do justice to Danai Gurira, a Zimbabwean-American actress and playwright who first came to the attention of Chicago theatre audiences when she wrote and starred in a superb play at the Goodman Theatre called “In the Continuum,” a truly unforgettable piece that was co-created with Nikkole Salter and dealt with HIV/AIDS through the twin perspectives of two women, one in South Central Los Angeles, the other in Zimbabwe.

But to the rest of the world, Gurira now is best known for playing Michonne on the hugely popular TV show “Walking Dead”, and for appearing as General Okaye in the Marvel mega-hit “Black Panther.”

It is a wonder she has any time left to write.

Taking place during a Minnesota winter and originally commissioned by the Yale Repertory Theatre, “Familiar” is (I believe) the first of Gurira’s plays not to be at least partially set in Africa, although Zimbabwe and its proud citizens are a constant presence in the work.

The catalyst for the events in this family drama is the marriage of a young lawyer named Tendikayi (Lanise Antoine Shelley) to a young American named Chris (Erik Hellman).

That provokes discussion as to how much homage the pending inter-racial nuptials should pay to Zimbabwean traditions, including the Roora ceremony, requiring the payment of a so-called “bride price.”

On one side are Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Ora Jones) and (maybe) her easy-going husband Donald (Cedric Young), Zimbabwe-born parents who’ve worked hard to achieve Stateside success for their two daughters, a pair that also includes Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper), a free artistic spirit and most likely a stand-in for the author, although I imagine Gurira sees herself in both sisters.

On the other is Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), a fearsome African matriarch who has arrived from Zimbabwe. Another family member, Margaret Munyewa (Jacqueline Williams) works to find a middle-ground, as does Eric’s sidekick younger brother, Brad (Luigi Sottile).

Along the way, all kinds of other family issues get an airing as Gurira details the kinds of parental pressures to follow a well-paid but conformist career path that will be familiar to many children of immigrants, first-generation Americans who have to reconcile their own desires for self-expression with the worries of parents raised in circumstances where the achievement of financial security was the first order of business in life.

Happily, Gurira embraces the comedy that you find in most rambunctious but loving families, filled with strong personalities. The work is often funny — Kristen Robinson’s set even includes an ample number of doors so that overhearings can take place or characters can appear unannounced. And, at times, the tricky blend of comedy and intense drama sometimes challenges this production, which sometimes sacrifices truth for laughs.

“Familiar” is no “August: Osage County” in its dissection of familial conflict. But what makes this much gentler play distinctive in its celebration of the extended African family, with its determination that parenting should be shared among all of those who can contribute to the well-being of the young.

Comedy always requires contrasts — and Gurira makes much of having this powerful Zimbabwean collective come to terms not only with the frigidity of a Minnesotan winter and the snow falling outside their door, but with their daughters becoming involved with a couple of genial Midwestern characters you might find in “Fargo.” (Both Hellman and Sottile approach their work with relish).

Taymor’s production embraces Gurira’s exploration of how the same matriarchal family can produce utterly different people — different takes on strength, you might say — and I found some of these performances quite moving, especially Jones’ take on a proud mother who is forced to reconsider her longstanding determination to ground her family in the tradition of its new land.

“Familiar” is, without question, written from the perspective of the children of immigrants, not the parents. Gurira is writing what she knows, but she also shows great empathy for her elders.

Most of these kinds of plays (Lauren Yee’s “King of the Yees” is another recent example) end with some kind of reconciliation of tradition and change, and “Familiar” is no exception there, even if there is a genuine surprise waiting in Act 2.

It’s notable, I think, that the play does not involve death — at which point the optimistic idea that you can combine old and new worlds without losing your own sense of identity often collides with the pain of loss. But that would be no comedy.

Gurira is at her best as a writer when probing the terrifyingly unfamiliar, which she did so brilliantly in this city, earlier in her extraordinary career. But this is a play that surely was too close to home not to write. And this is a Hollywood star who has forgotten nothing.