The Chinyaramwira family seems like itcouldn’t be more perfect. Donald (Harold Surratt) and Marvelous (Tamara Tunie), emigres from Zimbabwe, have achieved successful careers in America; Donald is an attorney, partner in a Minnesota practice, and Marvelous, with a PhD from MIT, runs a brain research lab that’s just secured a big grant. Their home is gracious and welcoming, filled with books and accent pillows and the aroma of Marvelous’s baking. Their older daughter, Tendi (Roslyn Ruff), is a lawyer who’s getting married tomorrow to Chris (Joby Earle), an earnest human rights activist. The younger daughter, Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), an aspiring singer/songwriter and feng shui consultant in New York, has just completed a long-awaited trip to Zimbabwe to investigate her roots and study local music. Marvelous’s younger sister, Margaret (Melanie Nicholls-King), also got her PhD in America and teaches geology. And the oldest sister, Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor), is coming from Zimbabwe for the celebration, and to perform a traditional African ceremony that Tendi has decided to add to her (otherwise Christian) wedding as a surprise for her family.
Playwright Danai Gurira has constructed a family that truly seems to be the exemplar of the American dream: self-made immigrants, loving, prosperous, with two healthy grown children, and preparing to see their eldest daughter married to a loving, gentle man whom both parents seem genuinely to welcome with open arms. And yet, from the very beginning, the cracks start to show through the polished facade.
Donald keeps trying to hang a colorful map of Zimbabwe in a prominent place in the living room; Marvelous keeps taking it down and restoring the painting that’s hung in that spot so long you can see a light spot in the paint behind it (one of many tiny hyperrealistic touches in Clint Ramos’s set). Nyasha is still in her pajamas, but her mother seems to have made up her mind to disapprove of whatever she wears to Tendi’s rehearsal dinner that night. Tendi’s resentment of Nyasha’s irresponsible career choices practically oozes from her. Margaret is barely getting by with a series of adjunct teaching jobs and constantly being dragged into multi-level marketing-type scams – and don’t even mention her sons. Tendi is getting married not in her parents’ Lutheran church but in the “happy clappy” fundamentalist church she’s joined as an adult, where she met her fiancé just a few months ago.
And, at the heart of the play, the roora ceremony: a tradition from the African heritage that Marvelous was more than happy to leave behind. Not only has Tendi arranged the whole thing as a (not very welcome, as it turns out) surprise for her parents, but she’s brought Auntie Anne from Zimbabwe when her mother had counted on Margaret to keep Anne away.
We don’t know, at first, why this ceremony is so fraught. It might be because Tendi’s fiancé is a “little white boy from Minnetonka” and the only person he has to bring as his munyai (go-between) for the ceremony is his irresponsible younger brother (Joe Tippett). Or is that Marvelous doesn’t trust her sister and that the past is something she and Donald would prefer to simply leave behind? And then it becomes clear almost at once that Anne has something much more substantive in mind than the symbolic connection to her roots that Tendi imagined as a complement to a wedding that gives a greater role to her spiritual family than her actual one. Plus, Auntie Anne is determined that now is the time to reveal all kinds of family secrets that stretch back to Zimbabwe, and to Tendi’s earliest childhood. Oh, and there’s a dose of frostbite thrown into the mix (it is a Minnesota winter, after all).
In short: a classic, perhaps overly familiar type of American realist play (notwithstanding the frostbite), two parts family drama and one part screwball comedy, except that one of the matters on the table is this very American family’s relationship with their pre-American roots. And so the play infuses that resolute Americanness with an equally resolute specificity about who this family is: their own particular history with its own particular secrets, both secrets that everyone but Tendi and Nyasha (and of course Chris and Brad) have known all along and secrets that the older generation have been keeping from one another.
There’s a lot stuffed into the play, perhaps too much and put together too symmetrically; everyone has a chance to bare their soul and then come to some revelation about their future – and their past – in a way that often tips over into melodrama, and sometimes feels a bit gratuitous, as if monologues had been measured out on the clock to make sure everyone got a turn in the spotlight. (This feels the most obvious when Brad, Chris’s brother, suddenly starts confessing his life story to Nyasha. It’s not out of left field entirely, but it feels like a detour in an already lengthy piece that has lots of revelations left to share.) At the same time, where Gurira, director Rebecca Taichman, and the generally strong cast excel is in the richness of the character touches, especially for the women (Nicholls-King and Aghayere are especially good, but the entire ensemble is solid): Margaret’s reflexive reaching for a glass of wine whenever things get tense and her simultaneous deep love for and frustration with her elder sister; the way the women share little vocal tics and stock phrases; Tendi’s fidgeting with her braids and practically vibrating with tension every time things go off schedule; Anne’s careful slowness of movement and her insistence on arranging the physical space in a way that gets on Marvelous’s every last nerve; Nyasha’s attempts to hide her hurt feelings about not being a bridesmaid for the sister she loves, but doesn’t like all that much.
This kind of very conventional, very realist play doesn’t generally appeal to me: it’s emotionally showy, even emotionally manipulative, without making particularly compelling use of the tools of theatre. It keeps throwing revelation after revelation after secret at you, relentlessly. And it tells the kind of story that is familiar, and often more intimately effective, in film or television. At the same time, it’s often extremely funny, with the sharp humor that comes from keen character observation. It’s genuinely emotionally affecting. And, as I felt with Gurira’s most recent play, Eclipsed, it adds something new to a familiar conversation by the simple act of repurposing the formula to showcase the stories of an African immigrant family, especially the women in it: it’s oddly delightful to see the two straight white single males as the characters who are almost pure plot devices (but nonetheless get their brief moment of character exploration).
Familiar is on at Playwrights Horizons until 10th April 2016. Click here for tickets.