If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Yale Rep "Familiar" -- A World Premiere
Family tensions come to a boil in “Familiar”, the world premiere drama by Danai Gurira currently on stage at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Although the play could probably benefit from some judicious tinkering, “Familiar” shows much promise and reminds us about the talented playwright behind those words.
Danai Gurira may be best known as the sword-wielding Michonne from AMC’s hit series, “The Walking Dead”, but long before she had a collection of beheadings under her belt, Gurira was a prolific and critically acclaimed playwright of award-winning works like “In the Continuum and “Eclipsed”, which was named “Outstanding Play” by the Connecticut Critics Circle in 2009.
“Familiar” finds the playwright in a semi-autobiographical mood with her story about an upscale Zimbabwean American family headed by domineering mother Marvelous (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and passive father Donald (Harvy Blanks). Set in suburban Minneapolis in a sprawling and spotless drool-worthy home, the parents are preparing for the upcoming wedding of favorite daughter Tendikayi (Cherise Boothe) while waiting for their youngest, Nyasha (Shyko Amos), to arrive. Presumably based on the playwright, Nyasha is the “artistic” type composing music while making a living as a feng shui artist. Her mother, needless to say, is not supportive.
The first act of “Familiar” takes a lot of time introducing several other family members including Marvelous’ two sisters who have little problem sharing their unsolicited advice and views on just about every topic. The play deals with issues of identity and assimilation as the sisters clash and generations collide with varying points of views. It takes a while to suss out where Gurira is taking us, but by the play’s better and more focused second act, “Familiar” explores potent family dynamics when long-buried secrets are finally unearthed.
“Familiar” reminded me of the early plays of August Wilson and Athol Fugard, which also dealt with the problems of African natives adjusting to western culture. But unlike those dramatists, Gurira tends to overwrite scenes with far too much explanation. A Zimbabwean pre-marriage ritual, for example, extends over both acts and seems wholly unnecessary in its current length. There is also a reveal in the second act that tends to drift into soap opera territory, but the play is ultimately saved by savvy direction (Rebecca Taichman) and a uniformly excellent cast. These include Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Kimberly Scott, Ross Marquand and Joe Tippett. Be aware, however, that the Shona dialect used by several actors is often hard to decipher and both Blanks and Chevannes would do well to increase their volume.
Matt Saunders’ spacious kitchen/living room setting is truly inviting and costumer Toni-Leslie James provides stylish selections for a diverse series of characters. Composers Somi and Toru Dodo also deliver a welcome flavor of Zimbabwe culture with their original music between scenes. Director Taichman stages fluid movement throughout, especially in those scene changes using her actors to expert advantage. The play is not perfect, but I wasn’t bored and, in the end, I was moved and wanted to know more about these new Americans in all their complexities and contradictions. And Ms. Gurira is a playwright I want to continue to follow.
“Familiar” continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through February 22. For further information and ticket reservations call 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.