Monday, February 22, 2016


Familiar, by the in-demand playwright and actress Danai Gurira (Eclipsed, The Walking Dead), is a kitchen sink comedy-drama with an African twist. It focuses on the Chinyamwira family, a Zimbabwean brood who left their homeland decades ago, solidly sewing themselves into the fabric of the United States. Donald and Marvelous (Harold Surratt and Tamara Tunie) are pillars of their suburban Minneapolis community; he is a successful lawyer, she is a biochemist. They wear assimilation like a badge of honor: their well-appointed home betrays no trace of their Rhodesian roots; their flat-screen television blares Penn State football games and Rachel Maddow; they worship at the local Lutheran church. They raised their two daughters, Tendi (Roslyn Ruff) and Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), to follow American custom; neither girl could speak a word of Shona.

Despite their American upbringing, both daughters are fascinated by their culture, which sets much of the play's action in motion. Nyasha has just returned from Zim (as everyone in the family calls it), emboldened to embrace her roots. Meanwhile, the engaged Tendi and her white fiance Chris (sensitivity played by Joby Earle) insist on performing roora, a traditional marriage rite involving bride prices and a counsel of elders. The parents are not happy -- especially when Auntie Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor), Marvelous' proud and brash older sister, arrives to perform the roora ceremony.

The first act of Gurira's play is full of solid exposition and clever writing. The game cast do well to make the audience feel like they're watching a family. Unfortunately, the action goes off the rails once the roora ceremony begins in earnest, and neither the playwright nor her fine company (under the generally steady direction of Rebecca Taichman) are able to right the ship.

Other issues abound. The character of Auntie Maggie (Melanie Nicholls-King) -- sister to Marvelous and Anne, an adjunct professor with money and alcohol problems -- is severely underdeveloped, as is Brian, Chris' military-man brother, played by Joe Tippett. Several major revelations are resolved too tidily. The always excellent Ruff is a bit too old for Tendi. The play ends abruptly, without much satisfaction.

However, if there is one reason to recommend Familiar, it is Tamara Tunie's gripping, committed performance. This fine actress (probably best known for her many years on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) skillfully limns humor and pathos as a woman who clings to her adopted identity because she cannot fathom what the other options could be. It's a shame that she is a supporting character here; I would have loved to have seen a play about her.

by Cameron Kelsall
[Member ticket, Row G center]

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