Danai Gurira does not reveal the source of the title for her new play FAMILIAR until the final scene. But there’s no need for spoiler alerts. There is nothing to spoil. Steppenwolf Theatre, where the Zimbabwean playwright’s latest work runs through January 13, gives its audience an eyeful of “familiar” right away: an onstage home in suburban Minneapolis that looks straight out of Martha Stewart Living.
Also familiar is the format, a domestic drama that occurs entirely in the living room and during the hours leading up to a prenuptial dinner. Add some familiar characters (wine-swigging aunt, groom’s untamed brother) and conflicts (sibling resentments, old secrets) – plus abundant one-liners, unexpected arrivals and sudden revelations – and the result is familiar in its structural resemblance to sitcom.
Wedding customs clash in FAMILIAR
What makes this otherwise recognizable world so exotic is the family onstage. The Chinyaramwiras are Zimbabwean immigrants. After many upwardly mobile decades in America, they eat lasagna, follow football and play chess. But on the eve of their daughter’s wedding to a white Minnesotan, their heritage bubbles up. First, it’s a simmer, then it turns into a rolling boil.
What wedding doesn’t include the discomfort of fitting different family customs into a single ceremony? For this group, there are clashing customs galore. Marvelous – an assimilated professional woman – and her gentle MSNBC-watching husband Donald approve of their attorney daughter Tendikayi’s fiancé – human rights activist Chris. Bride and groom are devout Christians who have not yet slept together. Younger daughter Nyasha, a feng shui consultant and singer-songwriter, has just returned from her first trip to Africa and asks everyone if they’ve read her blog on the subject. No one has. After quickly sizing up Chris’ brother Brad, Nyasha asks “Are you the family fuck-up too?”
Steppenwolf Theatre production features fine Chicago actresses
The younger actors are funny indeed but FAMILIAR’s three accomplished Chicago actresses of color (and maturity) – Ora Jones, Jacqueline Williams and Cheryl Lynn Bruce – steal the show. As sisters with a tormented past, each has distinct views on their shared Zimbabwean lineage. While Jones’ domineering Marvelous made sure her daughters never learned their native language Shona, Anne arrives unexpectedly from Africa to oversee the roora – a traditional ceremony in which a munyai (messenger) for the groom presents the dowry to the bride’s family. Chris volunteers Brad to serve as his munyai and Anne, played with firm conviction by Bruce, teaches this Midwestern guy how to greet elders with respect.
For this viewer, FAMILIAR’s promising first act gives way to a second act that stuffs too many personalities and topics into too little space. As a result, it fails to explore its rich themes and painful history with satisfying fullness. But that said, the portrait of the Chinyaramwiras and the messy relatives who disrupt their Martha Stewart Living lives is a colorful study in contrasts.
Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Celeste M. Cooper, Erik Hellman, Ora Jones, Lanise Antoine Shelley, Luigi Sottile, Jacqueline Williams, Cedric Young
Danya Taymor (director), Kristen Robinson (scenic design), Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene (costume design), Marcus Doshi (lighting design), Justin Ellington (sound design & musical direction), Somi (composer), Michelle Lopez-Rios (dialect coach), Malcolm Ewen (stage manager), Mary Hungerford (assistant stage manager)
Now through January 13
Tuesdays – Fridays at 7:30 PM
Saturdays & Sundays at 3:00 & 7:30 PM
1650 N. Halsted St.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows recently aired on BBC Radio 4.