What do you get when you mix African immigrants from Zimbabwe, Minnesota in the winter, interracial love, sexual repression, and a family secret? Danai Gurira allows us a glimpse into this stew as she stirs the pot in her latest play, “Familiar,” staged at the Wooly Mammoth theater in Washington, DC until March 4, 2018. Evoking laughter and tears, the drama and the plot twist will leave you aghast. I won’t reveal the details. So, there’s no spoiler alert her. But trust me that you will not predict how the plot unfolds.
The plot centers around the gathering of an immigrant Zimbabwean professional-class family to attend the wedding of the eldest daughter, Tendi, (Sharina Martin). Crossing racial lines to wed, Tendi, a lawyer and religious evangelist, embodies the elements of the perceived American Dream: attractive, successful, and even marrying white. In contrast, her younger sister, Nyasha, (Shannon Dorsey), Nyasha feels the need to reconnect to her African roots and has recently returned from a trip to Zimbabwe where she not only learned stories about her family and to speak Shona, but also found her voice as a singer.
Lording over both Tendi and Nyasha is their domineering and stereotypical unyielding and presumably unfeeling mother, Marvelous (Inga Ballard). And while the father, Donald, (Kim Sullivan), appears to be subservient to and dominated by his wife, his behind-the-scenes machinations in ensuring that his sister-in-law, Anne, (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) arrives from Zimbabwe to perform the lobola, “bride price,” ceremony shatters any perception of his passivity. He is a disruptor and a subversive one at that.
Anne’s presence to perform lobola not only incenses Marvelous but also makes her retreat to her bedroom refusing to participate until she does. And when she does, the family’s secret unveils itself: a deception unfathomable but justified and necessary by all the adults. What appears to have the potential to destroy Tendi ultimately sheds light on her mother’s seemingly emotionally detached behavior. The secret eventually bonds Tendi further to her family and her Zimbabwean heritage and culture.
While the set reveals the living and dining room of a Black bourgeois home, this play examines the upwardly-mobile and hyper-American narrative of a Zimbabwean immigrant family; it also draws our attention to the necessity of maintaining cultural roots and identities in a US culture that too quickly devolves into consumerism and social climbing. The play begs the question: How much of your culture do you or should you retain and maintain in your process of becoming Americanized?
Funny, somber, and chaotic at times, the entire cast including Drew Kopas, as Chris, the groom; Andy Truschinksi, as Brad, Chris’s younger brother; and Twinkle Burke, as Margaret—the Ph.D., adjunct-professor-multilevel-hawking-of-wares aunt—a safe place to rear their children, thrive, and attain some semblance of the American Dream.