An Original Yet Familiar Story at Yale Rep

By Amy J. Barry

A picture of Robert Moogabe, ruler of Zimbabwe, hangs prominently in a family room. An imposing middle-aged African American woman takes it down, replacing it with a benign painting of a horse. Her husband quietly switches it back.

This symbolic gesture sets the tone for what’s to come in Familiar, a funny play about a serious subject, written by Danai Gurira and premiering at Yale Repertory Theatre. The talented playwright’s previous award-winning plays include In the Continuum and Eclipsed—both also performed at Yale Rep.

Familiar is about a Zimbabwean American family living in suburban Minneapolis. The elder daughter is getting married and the whole family is assembling for the big day. But when it turns out the bride plans to incorporate a traditional Zimbabwean wedding ritual into the service, all hell breaks out between family members, who are forced to look at the native culture they’ve either cast off, embraced, or are ambivalent about.

As citizens of the American melting pot, most of us can relate to this story of cultural assimilation, even if the circumstances of our own experiences are very different than those of the characters in the play.

Clearly a semi-autobiographical work, this is what Gurira says in the program notes: “I hope the family on stage is startlingly familiar -- surprising in just how ‘devastatingly normal’ they are…I hope that by the end, in some way large or small, they will feel a lot like your people, too.”

Gurira achieves this feeling of universality under director Rebecca Taichman’s skilled hand.

As a whole, the ensemble cast is superb.

Saidah Arrika Ekulona gives a very strong performance as the powerful matriarch, Marvelous Chinyaramwira -- a biochemist and happy homemaker all rolled into one -- a superwoman not to be messed with.

Harvy Blanks is a likable Donald Chinyaramwira—husband of Marvelous, who will do anything to keep the peace, until he can’t any longer.

Shyko Amos plays her role of Nyasha to the hilt as the feisty and quick-tempered younger daughter, who has just come back from her first trip to Zimbabwe to connect with her people, but feels as estranged in Africa as she does as an artist living outside the mainstream at home. Nyasha is constantly clashing with her mother, whose expectations she cannot -- and does not want to -- meet.

At the other extreme is Cherise Boothe as Tendikayi, Nyasha’s older sister and bride-to-be. Made in her mother’s image, Tendi, the nickname she goes by, is a cool, collected, successful lawyer, who, prior to her impending marriage, has had little interested in her cultural heritage. She also clashes with Nyasha, who is hurt that Tendi included people from her Christian church in the wedding ceremony, rather than her own sister.

And then there are the aunts: Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Aunt Maggie, the family peacekeeper, who quells her anxiety with red wine -- and Kimberly Scott in an exceptional performance as the hot-headed, manipulative Aunt Annie, a native Zimbabwean who arrives for the wedding to conduct the traditional Roora ceremony to the chagrin of Marvelous -- vying with her sister for the family matriarchal role.

Ross Marquand as Tendi’s white fiance, Chris, reels in the chaos as a dependable humanitarian aid worker in Africa—one of Gurira’s many wonderful twists on stereotypes. Marquand gives a solid performance, even if he’s not as animated as the other characters. His goofy, endearing brother Brad, played by Joe Tippet, who gets pulled into the family drama after just returning from the army, is one of the most refreshing and relatable characters in the production.

Despite a few over-the-top deliveries by the actors, and several not-so-subtle soap box moments by the playwright, Familiar is such an engrossing play, about themes that really hit home, I for one, couldn’t wait to get back after intermission to find out what happens next.

An unexpected plot turn near the end, revealing a dark family secret, nearly destroys the family, but ultimately allows for not only healing and forgiveness, but respect for one another’s differences.

Matt Saunders’ impressive scenic design is an integral part of the production. He has the spacious suburban upper middle class home down pat from the kitchen cabinet millwork and the fully stocked double-door refrigerator, to the recessed lighting, and casual-elegant family room. Toni-Leslie James’s wildly colorful Zimbabwean costumes are a marvelous contrast to the staid interiors.

African music between scenes composed by Somi and Toru Dodo adds a lovely touch. And a shout out goes to Beth McGuire, dialect and vocal coach for the beautifully delivered native language of Shona that several of the characters converse in, especially when feeling particularly passionate about a subject.

It can be argued that there is so much interaction going on simultaneously between the eight characters on stage, at times it feels like a ping-pong match. But that’s also what adds up to such a lively, engaging production. Gurira has succeeded in creating a family that rings true, arguing and making up, trying to find their voices but not feeling heard, giving and rejecting love, reconnecting, disconnecting, and ultimately connecting with each other -- and themselves.

Familiar is at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven through Feb. 21. Tickets available online at www.yalerep.org or by calling the box office at 203-432-1234.

This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.



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