Whether or not you grew up in Zimbabwe (as playwright Danai Gurira did), you will likely recognize a lot in her new play, Familiar. Following an extended family of Zimbabwean-Americans, it is now making its New York debut at Playwrights Horizons following a world premiere at Yale Rep. For a play about a very specific subset of people, Familiar lives up to its title. It's a good old-fashioned comedy, set during the run-up to a wedding, featuring mistaken identity and last-minute plot twists. It's tremendously enjoyable, drawing us into the characters and their stories.
Donald (Harold Surratt) and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Tamara Tunie) are a Zimbabwean-American couple living in a gorgeous home in Minnesota. They have two adult daughters: Nyasha (Ito Aghayere) is a singer-songwriter and feng shui consultant in New York (but mostly, she's subsidized in the city). Older daughter Tendi (Roslyn Ruff) has taken a more conservative path, working as an attorney at dad's law firm. Tendi is getting married to Chris (Loby Earle), a native Minnesotan who runs an NGO. They want to honor African Tendi's heritage by participating in roora, a traditional negotiation between the groom and the bride's family for her "price."
Marvelous will have nothing to do with this antiquated custom, while Donald seems content to hide in his study and drink whiskey, but Marvelous' older sister Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor) flew all the way from Zimbabwe to participate. As per tradition, Chris cannot haggle directly; his little brother Brad (Joe Tippett), recently out of the military, acts as his munyai, or representative. Marvelous' younger sister Margaret (Melanie Nicholls-King) worries that Anne's demand for thousands of dollars in gifts will lead the groom's family to think they are "grubby, greedy Africans." But Anne is unmoved: She's been holding down the fort in Zimbabwe for decades as the country fell apart around her. She's ready for her payday.
Gurira has a gift not only for capturing the rhythm of a boisterous family gathering, but making the individual participants distinct, unique, and wholly human. She showed similar care in Eclipsed, her play about the Liberian Civil War that has recently transferred to Broadway. Unfortunately, there is a drawback in writing only plum roles: In the second act, it feels like nearly everyone gets an extended monologue. Strictly speaking, not all of the words are necessary (the play could benefit from some smart editing). Gurira knows how to spin a good yarn, however, so we accept this lack of brevity, as we do with Shakespeare's best comedies.
Director Rebecca Taichman's production is commensurately thorough. Susan Hilferty subtly comments on each of the characters with her well-selected costumes: Chris wears a sensible suit, Brad a comfortable Ramones baseball shirt with ski cap, Marvelous an impressive copper dress. In addition to their copious fashion sense, the Chinyaramwiras have impeccable taste in interior design. Clint Ramos' set is warm and inviting: A lifetime of books and art dot built-in dark-wood shelves. Tasteful stemware hangs from a bar stocked with top-shelf liquor in crystal decanters. This is definitely where we would want to spend the holidays.
In the theater, we're so used to such sumptuous interiors being the exclusive domain of staid WASPs and their imitators, people who communicate mostly through subtext and passive-aggression. Not so here: The Chinyaramwiras go from zero to 60 in their interactions, a fact that Taichman and Gurira make clear from the earliest moments. "I won't have it," Marvelous shouts at Donald about a map of Zimbabwe he has conspicuously placed in the living room. She quickly removes it, chastising him in Shona (a native language of Zimbabwe). How refreshing to see upper-middle-class Americans who say exactly what they mean.
Viewers might expect Zimbabwe-born Marvelous to pine for the old country, but it's actually Minnesota-born Nyasha who is most wistful for Zimbabwe. This shouldn't be surprising considering that Marvelous is the one who chose to become an American, wearing her patriotism loud and proud. Tunie is grandiose as this Minnesota matriarch, delivering her lines with a posh African English dialect (think NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton). Aghayere's Nyasha is far more casual, but just as fiery. She gives mom hell about not teaching Shona to her daughters. In turn, Marvelous is dismissive of Nyasha's state of suspended adolescence. It's a mother-daughter relationship that seems uncomfortably authentic.
Memorable performances abound: Taylor is intense as Anne, harrumphing her way through the house, disdainful of this rapidly Americanizing family. Ruff easily embodies the bossy older sister, exhibiting a grating knack for unsolicited advice. With a guarded coolness, Ruff and Aghayere make it clear that these are not the kind of sisters who stay up all night braiding each other's hair. Tippett is irrepressibly charming as Brad. The ensemble works together to weave a rich tapestry onstage, slyly highlighting the little variations and contradictions of this hyphenated American family.
"We are losing our people, our children! Our blood! Our roots," Anne rants. Worried that Tendi's marriage to a white American will end with the obliteration of the family's Zimbabwean culture, she sounds eerily like any number of nativist politicians in the United States and Europe. The truth is, of course, that culture is alive and constantly being reinvented by those living it. The most heartwarming new comedy of the season, Familiar humbly suggests that this process can be a happy synthesis of old and new.