Fiery, fierce and full of passion, Danai Gurira’s “Familiar,” which runs through Feb. 21 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, opens on an unassuming scene: the well-furnished living room of an exquisite house in suburban Minneapolis. As the lights in the theater dim and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and Donald Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks) begin to go about their daily routines, everything seems ordinary and “American.” And as could happen in any American household, Marvelous prepares lasagna while Donald checks the evening news on TV, at times sipping from a glass of whiskey.
Yet I couldn’t help but wondering if there was something out of place in the scene, something strange happening in the familiar surroundings. Perhaps it was the bright yellow Robert Mugabe portrait that Donald tried to hang on the wall without Marvelous noticing, his furtive actions often soliciting laughter from the audience; perhaps it was the thick Zimbabwean accent that still lingered in their dialogue. Whatever it was, this bubble of suburban American life hinted at a place beyond the confines of the living room walls, the voices of characters suggesting the tones and sounds of a distant land. And beneath the serene surface, unseen forces stir within this immigrant family. Pandemonium begins to build with the arrival of Nyasha (Shyko Amos) after a recent trip to Zimbabwe. A singer-songwriter and feng shui artist trying to make a living in New York City, free-spirited Nyasha assumes the role of the rebellious child in front of her demanding mother Marvelous, the bright hues of Nyasha’s Zimbabwean dress standing in stark contrast to Marvelous’s more somber and subdued wardrobe. Nyasha tries to advocate for a return to Zimbabwean culture and tradition, but her Americanized family gives her no time to speak, preferring a football game to Nyasha’s travel tales. Ostensibly, everyone is caught up in the frenzied planning for the wedding of Nyasha’s older sister Tendiyaki (Cherise Boothe) and “little white boy” Chris (Ross Marquand). Secretly, though, every character is struggling with his or her own worries and fears.
Tackling many profound themes including cultural assimilation, the struggles of the immigrant family and even a little bit of Zimbabwean politics, “Familiar” is an ambitious play. Of particular interest to me was the clash of cultures embodied by Marvelous, Auntie Maggie (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) and Auntie Annie (Kimberly Scott DRA ’87), three sisters with distinct personalities.
Marvelous is a typically “successful” immigrant, a biochemistry professor with a degree from MIT, brilliant and daunting as her name suggests. She is the no-nonsense authority figure of the family, towering over Baba Chinyaramwira (Shona for “father”) and commanding the thoughts and actions of those around her. Playing Marvelous, Ekulona truly propelled an impassioned performance, highlighting both the intensity and pride of the conflicted character.
Maggie, on the other hand, is the “lesser” version of Marvelous. She too pursued her education in America, but realizing that academia was not for her, she went on to a job in direct sales. Nonetheless, Maggie follows Marvelous’s footsteps in relinquishing her ties with Zimbabwe in favor of the American way of life. On the far end of the spectrum is Auntie Annie, who still lives in Zimbabwe and enjoys bucket baths. She joins the family for the sole purpose of performing the roora ceremony, a traditional Zimbabwean wedding ritual concerning the bride’s dowry. Annie hopes to exploit the ceremony to extract money from Chris, who, being white, appears rich and privileged from her provincial perspective.
Together, all three women are Tendiyaki’s mothers, not only by Zimbabwean custom but also because, in a twist towards the play’s end, Tendi’s real mother is revealed to be a fourth sister who died years ago during Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence. Tendi is officially taken in by Marvelous, who leaves Zimbabwe with Tendi in tow, determined to raise her to be a strong woman. Though Marvelous’s high expectations of her children make her easy to portray as the villain, her firm stance and stern words are only a cover for the love she harbors for her family. Despite her best efforts, she never completely assimilates into American society, so she vows to help her children succeed, a commitment not unfamiliar to those who also grew up in immigrant families.
Tendi is a testament to this commitment. Beautiful and powerful, she stands tall in her high heels and commands the spotlight just like Marvelous. “Anyway, anyway, anyway,” they both like to say in the same petulant and sassy way, and both seem to have earned their right to authority. The breadwinner of her future household and a top-notch lawyer with a world of potential, Tendi is the gem of the Chinyaramwira family. Marvelous is certainly proud of her daughter, approving Tendi’s choice of an educated Caucasian husband as perhaps the next step towards fully integrating the Chinyaramwiras into the American Dream.
But family is not all about dreams and achievements, aspirations and desires. There is a deeper bond that overcomes the differences between family members, a kinship in blood, culture and spirit. Nyasha, Tendi’s “c’est-la-vie” counterpart, conveys this realization through a lovely song on the mbira, the national instrument of Zimbabwe. The light notes of the mbira left me a little breathless, as did the sound of her voice. “Familiar,” the song is called; familiar, a word with “family” as the root.
As I watched the play, a quote from James Gelvin, a history professor at UCLA, kept popping into my mind. “Cultures are not billiard balls that bounce off each other when they come into contact,” he writes. “Throughout history, cultures have borrowed from and influenced each other.” “Familiar” brings this quote to life in the form of a family that is truly one of a kind.