Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Jan. 13, 2019
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The specifics of the story in Danai Gurira’s “Familiar” probably won’t be…well, familiar, but the family dynamics and tensions certainly will be. So will some of the broader political and social themes like the culture clash and age-old question of whether immigrants should assimilate as much as possible or try to maintain their heritage.
What makes the play interesting is the way Gurira – best known nowadays as General Okoye in “Black Panther” and Michonne on “The Walking Dead,” as well as for such plays as “In the Continuum” and “Eclipsed,” – mixes and matches hilarious comedy and heart-breaking tragedy to create an evening that careens from one to the other but never completely loses its way. She also crafts complicated contrasting characters who aren’t particularly likable but have enough redeeming qualities that we can forgive the ways most of them mistreat each other.
Set in a suburb of Minneapolis, MN, in the winter of 2011, “Familiar” unfolds in the well-appointed living room—impeccably designed by Kristen Robinson with a balcony and doors for slamming—of Marvelous and Donald Chinyaramwira. A research biologist with a good academic position, Marvelous (pitch-perfect Ora Jones) is a commanding, controlling woman who, since emigrating from Zimbabwe years ago, has been dedicated to making sure she and her family become thoroughly Americanized. Donald (Cedric Young), a partner in a law firm, is more laid-back and adept at avoiding confrontation, often by settling down in his easy chair and watching the ball game on television. The only hint he may have a secret is his insistence on replacing a holiday wreath on the wall with a framed map of Zimbabwe, which becomes a running gag.
The occasion of the gathering is the wedding weekend, starting with the rehearsal dinner, of their 34-year-old daughter Tendikayi (Lanise Antoine Shelley), also a lawyer. Stylish and success-oriented, she’s a devoutly spiritual Christian who has decided to remain a virgin until she’s married. Her equally virginal intended, Chris (Erik Hellman), is an evangelical Christian Midwestern “white boy” who is devoted to her and has worked for nonprofit organizations in Africa, where Tendikayi’s never been as an adult.
Tendikayi’s younger sister, Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper), on the other hand, has recently returned from a visit to Zimbabwe all fired up about her heritage and wondering why her parents never taught her the Shona language or anything else about their homeland. An aspiring singer-songwriter and feng shui consultant who lives in New York, she’s an artistic, financially challenged free spirit who can barely get her mother’s attention except for some criticism of her lifestyle. Tendikayi, who has a holier-than-thou streak, is critical, too, especially because Nyasha has borrowed money from their father. This leads to a huge fight between the sisters, with both hurling insults that are hard to take back.
A bigger battle looms between Marvelous and her sisters. Although she’s only mildly judgmental of the younger one, Margaret Munyewa (Jacqueline Williams), who is less affluent and accomplished but has raised her sons to assimilate, she erupts with anger when she learns that her older sister, Anne-Mai Carol (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) has arrived from Africa, uninvited and unwanted by her.
The fiercely patriotic Anne, who never emigrated, is steeped in the ways of her home and determined that Tendikayi should have a traditional Zimbabwean wedding ceremony including the Shona language, the rituals of obeisance, and the “bride price” (in this case about $10,000, clothes, and a cow), a dowry substitute paid by the husband-to-be, even though Chris is practically penniless. When Marvelous forcefully objects and refuses to participate, Anne self-righteously tells her that she’s not the girl’s mother, all three of them are.
This assertion will take on new meaning in the more serious second act, with its surprising plot twists that illuminate some of the characters’ motivations. But before that, Gurira and director Danya Taymor dish up an intensely funny, if disturbing, scene. Eager to respect the elders and traditions that date back centuries, Tendikayi and Chris embrace the idea of the ceremony, though Tendikayi is impatient for her leisurely Aunt Anne to speed things up, and Chris is thrown off guard when he’s informed that he won’t be allowed to address her directly but has to have a relative to represent him in the negotiations.
Hastily, he calls in his younger brother Brad (Luigi Sottile), a slacker screw-up who joined the military briefly to pay child support to the 18-year-old girl he got pregnant and is pretty much the opposite of Chris. Anne, decked out in full Zimbabwean regalia and addressing them in Shona (translated by Margaret), forces the young men to approach her on their knees while clapping and place money in a bowl, generally emasculating them and milking her power for all its worth. Brad also is involved in an even more outrageous interlude that includes hypothermia with rom-com overtones.
But I don’t want to divulge too much. As in so many dysfunctional family dramas, secrets and lies are revealed, though here they seem more plentiful and potent than in some cases. Love and affection ultimately conquer all—or almost. Some loose ends aren’t wrapped up, despite a lovely low-key ending, thanks to original music composed by Somi and to Cooper’s winning performance.
The entire ensemble is excellent—if a bit over the top—and seeing divas Jones, Bruce, and Williams together in a show is a treat. Hellman is spot-on as eager-to-please Chris, while Sottile’s Brad is a breath of fresh air whether he’s acting on impulse or admitting that he welcomes the opportunity to be of some use and come out from the shadow of his older brother.
Marcus Doshi’s lighting enhances the impressive set, and Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene’s costumes capture the diverse characters beautifully. Credit also goes to sound designer Justin Ellington and dialect coach Michelle Lopez-Rios.
“Familiar” paints a family picture with broad strokes, but be sure to watch and listen for the subtleties of the interactions.