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REVIEW: Outrageous Humor in the Familiar: Danai Gurira of Black Panther‘s New Play (Guthrie Theater)

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s production of Familiar by Danai Gurira. Photo by Dan Norman.

An unexpectedly uproarious drama by Danai Gurira – one of the stars of the blockbuster movie Black Panther – opened last week at the Guthrie Theatre. The play weaves together various themes concerning assimilation, immigration, and family. In a show that is dominated by African American female actors, a rarity in American drama, Director Tabi Magar also brings out the show’s sometimes outrageous humor by concentrating on the play’s relationships.

Familiar playwright Danai Gurira is also a well-known screen actress, playing Michonne in The Walking Dead and appearing in the feature film Black Panther as Okoye. She is also the co-founder of Almasi Arts.

The play has a local touch, concerning a Zimbabwean family from a Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb whose oldest daughter, Tendi (Sha Cage), is an attorney with her father’s law firm. Tendi is also a born-again Christian at what her mother calls a “happy-clappy church” and set to marry her fellow churchgoer Chris (Quinn Franzen), a “white boy from Minnetonka”. Tendi’s parents, Marvelous (Perri Gaffney) and Donald (Harvy Blanks), are professionals who left Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) when the country was struggling to break away from the colonial power of Great Britain. Tendi also has a younger sister Nyasha (Aishe Keita) who lives in New York City as a struggling musical artist, but who returns home for her sister’s wedding. Also joining the family are two of Marvelous’s sisters: Margaret (Austene Van), a geology professor who nevertheless lacks the financial security of a tenured position, and Anne (Wandachristine), an older sister who still lives in Zimbabwe. Finally, there is Brad (Michael Wieser) – Chris’s apparently aimless brother who nevertheless often provides some of the greatest wisdom.

One of the play’s theme is the tension between traditional customs and the different values and practices adopted by immigrants. There is a great deal of tension between Marvelous and her sister Anne that is exacerbated when she learns that Tendi and her fiancé brought Anne over to conduct the roora (bride-price ceremony). Marvelous wants nothing to do with the custom and is upset that Anne came primarily for this custom.

Another of the play’s themes – and much of its humor – comes from the bickering between different sets of sisters, Tendi and Nyasha from the younger generation, and Marvlous and her sisters from the older. Donald spends much of the play trying to stay out of the line of fire, at least until the end of the play when he finally expresses his feelings about returning to Zimbabwe.

“White guy from Minnetonka” Brad (Michael Wieser, second from left) meets his soon-to-be in-law Anne Mwarimba (Wandachristine, center). Also pictured: Chris (Quinn Franzen, far left) and Prof. Margaret Munyewa (Austene Van). Photo by Dan Norman.

Familiar doesn’t have a consistent central character focus. The story starts out following Marvelous and Nyasha, but about mid-way in the second act, Tendi appears and takes much of the focus. Later, it shifts to Marvelous and then back toNyasha. Both Cage and Gaffney bring a vital fierceness to their roles as daughter and mother as each fights for their careers and families. In contrast, Keita as Nyasha is overshadowed by both, but persists in finding a place for her more laid back, artistic approach to life. Similarly, Blanks seemed to cower to the strong women in his life, but he eventually rises to the task of making his choices known.

Van does a wonderful job of playing the fashionable Margaret (who also has a drink in her hand) and plays the perfect foil between her two feuding sisters, but convincingly shows her regret when Anne goes too far. Wandachristine’s portrayal of the headstrong and (at times) bitter Anne dominates the stage whenever she enters, a depiction that makes clear that no one can stop her from her course. Franzen and Wieser have less to work with in their roles, but Wieser memorably delivers the show’s biggest laugh at the conclusion of Act I.

The title Familiar is apt: much of the play feels instantly familiar to anyone who has a family. Nyasha and Tendi’s arguments reminded me of arguments between my two adult daughters, especially when they make remarks about their mother. The conflict with the older family members over the desire to return to their homeland also rang true, recalling theo conversations my parents often had about returning to their land of birth. An exception to this sense of fit is Tendi’s initial but clearly out-of-character response to a shocking family secret. This scene is clearly designed for laughs, but they seem hollow.

Scenic designer Adam Rigg does a credible job of creating an upper middle class home that has a classic Parade of Homes feel. Karen Perry’s notable costume designs include striking instances like Margaret’s stylish clothes and Anne’s African apparel, which adds to her commanding presence.

Like a Shakespearean play, the audience has to take a few minutes to adjust to the accents before it can start appreciating the play’s many snappy lines. But once the adjustment is made, the play makes for a delightful evening of both laughter and sorrow.

Tensions reach a humorous climax in Familiar. Photo by Dan Norman.

Familiar plays through April 14 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Bev Wolfe
Bev Wolfe is a Staff Reviewer at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. She is an attorney and avid theatre fan who has written theatre reviews for local publications since 2008. She is also an Ivey Awards evaluator.
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