A Political, Familial “Familiar”

JOAN MARCUS PHOTOPerhaps the most surprising thing about Danai Gurira’s Familiar, given her previous work at the Yale Rep, is how traditional it is. What is not surprising is how enlightening and entertaining it is, too.

Familiar is the third play that Gurira has brought to the Yale Repertory Theatre, and it stands out by being neither stark (the two-person, empty stage of In the Continuum, which Gurira co-wrote and performed with Nikkole Salter at the Rep in 2007) nor abstract and grotesque (the horrific war drama Eclipsed, from 2009). What Familiar shares with In the Continuum, which was about the AIDS crisis in Africa, and Eclipsed, about the Liberian civil war, is an exploration of African social issues, something Gurira has now done credibly from a number of perspectives and in a number of different styles.

The first two of the eight people we meet in Familiar are Marvelous Chinyaramwira (the imperious and beautiful Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and her husband Donald (Harvy Blanks), a middle-aged couple who left Zimbabwe in their youth and have chosen to raise their children in suburban Minneapolis. Their elder daughter Tendikayi is getting married, which brings her younger sister, a free spirit named Nyasha (appealing played by Shyko Amos), and her aunts Margaret (Cherise Boothe) and Annie (Kimberly Scott) to the Chinyaramwira home for preparations. Margaret is a wiry, wine-guzzling academic-turned-entrepreneur who has assimilation written all over her, while Annie still lives in Zimbabwe and is such a traditionalist that she convinces Tendikayi and her fiancee Chris (Ross Marquand, all sweet whitebread Minnesotan) to add a ceremony to their wedding that includes wrapping the bride in a blanket and gifting her elders with cows.

Familiar plays at the Yale Rep through Feb.. 21.

Under the direction of Rebecca Taichman — a Yale School of Drama grad whose thesis project back in 2000 was the culture-clashing The People Vs. The God of Vengeance, and who has since returned to the Rep to direct Iphigenia at Aulis and two wondrous David Adjmi plays, The Evildoers and Marie AntoinetteFamiliar opens brightly and briskly. The action’s played out on a well-lit, realistic, multi-room set. The quirks of the family members (young Nyasha is into poetry and feng shui, Maggie is pushing direct-sales products that Marvelous characterizes as “direct pyramid Ponzi nonsense,” and Annie insists on showering with a bucket) and the promise of a wedding evoke You Can’t Take It With You, with some of Chekhov’s Three Sisters thrown in for dramatic measure. There are running gags, a wintry crisis, and even a sweet uplifting song played on an mbira.

Much of Familiar’s first act makes merry with the differences among the members of this boisterous brood, and the feuding fun gets wackier when nice-guy fiancee Chris’ earthy, outspoken self-described “average white guy” brother Brad shows up to take part in the Zimbabwean ceremony. The first act ends with a big all-out comic climax, with shrieking and rushing about and tight clinches and mistaken assumption.

But you’d be foolish to assume that a play where the central wall-hanging in the living room is a framed portrait of Zimbabwe’s long-serving leader, the revolutionary-turned-ethnic-cleansing-dictator Robert Mugabe, is going to stay light and frothy for long. When you return from Familiar’s intermission, you’re treated to round after round of political discussions, family squabbles, recriminations, revelations and (thank goodness) romantic interludes. There are secrets to be divulged, dreams to be revealed, hopes to be realized. Things get serious. It helps that the playwright, who was born in the United States and raised in Zimbabwe, is so conversant in the customs of both countries. She can write a scene where the family’s watching MSNBC, concerned about political unrest in Africa, then switch the channel to whoop and holler over the Penn-Ohio game.

Such scene-shifting and social sermonizing, within such old-fashioned theatrical formats, seems impossible to pull off with any conviction or credibility, yet Gurira and Taichman succeed. Familiar is a classic melodrama at an unlikely time in an unlikely place, by a writer whose previous work — all of it just as strong and sincere — did nothing to prepare us for it.

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