A crowd-pleasing, sweet-hearted sitcom with a provocative edge, Danai Gurira’s Familiar (★★★) delivers a very different take on the immigrant experience — and a very timely one. In a climate in which our nation’s new arrivals are reduced to faceless statistics and political pawns, it’s vital to be reminded that these are real people who can never be so easily pigeonholed. And Gurira’s is a refreshingly original premise: two well-heeled Zimbabwean parents have raised a couple of privileged American daughters in the heart of Minnesota. Now, as the eldest is about to marry an uber-Christian white man, an aunt arrives from Zimbabwe to deliver a traditional wedding ritual — and something of her own agenda — and the family is tipped into a chaos that moves from comedy to crisis.
But, alas, it’s not easy to be easy-breezy funny and thoughtful, and here Gurira piles on more issues than the play can truly carry. Prime example is the denouement. The Zimbabwean identity of parents Donald and Marvelous is integral to their psyches, but for most of the play it is mainly used to deliver the laughs as the Westernized daughters — and their visitors — navigate the uncompromising Marvelous and her sister Anne. When a defining, deadly serious Zimbabwean memory is finally shared in a moment of family reckoning, it feels out of place and overdone. The play has cruised along on too light a note to drop into such emotionally graphic territory in the eleventh hour.
Short-shrift is given to other enticing issues that also beg greater exploration. Youngest daughter Nyasha is the family’s “black sheep,” but despite plenty of expository on her life choices, we never get a true sense of the state of her relationship with her parents. There is too little meat on this interesting bone and it leaves a small reconciliation at the end of the play empty of joy. And although older sister Tendi’s keenly intelligent, if dour, affect works well in relation to her uncompromising mother, it argues mightily with her adoption of her future husband’s fundamentalist religion. How did she ever get from here to there? Finally, although the unspoken tension between Marvelous and husband Donald is readable, we learn too little of their enduring connection and the crossroads at which they find themselves. All of these aspects intrigue and yet fizzle, because Gurira wants too much to entertain and there just isn’t the bandwidth (even in a long play) to develop them.
Gurira does create a powerful collection of personalities and, at times, a joyous entertainment in the clashing of generations and cultures. Bringing it with immense comic timing and a truly deft hand is a stellar Shannon Dorsey as the mildly defiant Nyasha. If she is a superb physical comic and master of the one-liner, Dorsey also makes this young woman immensely lovable. She is the tender heart of the play, and the ease with which she flops on the couches and slouches around in her pajamas is what puts the “family” in the drama. Her chemistry sparkles with Chris’ irreverent brother Brad, nicely captured by Andy Truschinski with some excellent comic timing.
The other standout here is a tremendously convincing Cheryl Lynn Bruce as Anne, Marvelous’ uncompromising sister, who has flown in from Africa bringing some tradition and some not-particularly-welcome reminders of the home country. Bruce does something very difficult here and does it well: she carries the humor in this stubborn, old-school elder, but she also delivers her deadly serious edge. Through her, Gurira touches on Zimbabwe’s history of oppression and its deeply bitter legacy. She is the most complex character here and the most thoroughly explored. But even if that makes her incongruous, Anne does what all authentically-drawn characters should do: forces us to think and then own our answers.
If Dorsey and Bruce steal the show, the rest of the ensemble is strong if not quite simpatico. As older sister Tendi, Sharina Martin embodies well the credible tension of an adult whose inner life has never been easy. She expresses much with little, and her chemistry with Drew Kopas’ Chris feels genuine. And it is only her and Kopas’ skill — and the bold hand of director Adam Immerwahr — that pulls off a ridiculous (in a bad way) scene in which a traumatized Tendi tries to break her vow of celibacy on the family couch.
As Donald, Kim Sullivan brings a quiet and remarkably vivid presence to a successful man readying to face his life choices. Sullivan is beautifully understated here and his every move is to be savored for its craft and humor. But without more from Gurira, it’s very hard to connect him to Marvelous, even if opposites attract. His low temperature also feels somewhat out of step with the bigger vibe of the production in which Immerwahr battles valiantly to balance Gurira’s competing goals.
Harder here is Inga Ballard’s Marvelous. With her magnificent presence and commanding voice, she captures much in this dominant woman and nicely suggests her inner conflict. But Ballard leans so hard on the gas there is little room for humor or warmth, even where it belongs. And warmth is needed in the gaps left by Gurira, especially in Marvelous’ emotional connection with her daughters. As another sister, Margaret, Twinkle Burke expresses the chronic vagueness of a person bogged down by life, but she can’t reconcile Gurira’s inconsistent moments when Margaret gets irate.
Familiar is a somewhat flawed play with a production that can’t quite cover for it. But for bringing a unique voice and genuine humor to an issue that touches us all, it breaks the mold.
Familiar runs to March 4 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St NW. Tickets are $20 to $104. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.
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