Sometimes you simply don’t know where you are or where you want to be. Take immigrants, simultaneously adjusting to their adopted country’s values while drawn back to their native lands. They are, as Danai Gurira’s new play “Familiar” puts it, ”cultural hybrids.”
A diffuse, sentimental, sometimes funny, sometimes touching work-in-progress, “Familiar,” in its world premiere at Yale Rep, could use cutting. Its initiating action is the impending wedding of Tendikayi, a lawyer living the American Dream in suburban Minneapolis with her upwardly mobile family who emigrated from Zimbabwe. Her fiancé, Chris, is Caucasian; both are chaste Christians. But along about the middle of the play comes an over-extended Zimbabwean ceremony that seems as endless as the 34-year reign of that nation’s president-dictator, Robert Mugabe.
Strife begins even before the first bit of dialogue: mother, a control freak, MIT graduate and professor named Marvelous, cooks a meal while father Donald stares affectionately at a poster of Mugabe. Annoyed, Marvelous changes the portrait for one of a bland landscape. Thus begins the duel of roots vs. assimilation.
That battle is further joined with the arrival of Marvelous’ older sister, Annie, who insists on the pre-nuptial ceremony called roora. In this African ritual, Annie and Chris bargain about the bride’s dowry, a traditional event that particularly annoys Marvelous.
Meanwhile, Tendikayi clashes with her younger sister, Nyasha, a New York singer and feng sui consultant, just returned from a trip to Zimbabwe. Also caught in a no-woman’s land is their mother’s fashion-conscious younger sister, Maggie, born in Africa but into the very American career of direct sales.
Act Two veers off the tracks from these intriguing dichotomies between tradition and modernity into a domestic comedy-drama. Startling revelations send Tendikayi into a sexual and emotional tailspin.
Compared with similarly-themed dramas like “A Raisin in the Sun” and its sequel, “Clybourne Park,” Gurira’s characters are one-dimensional pawns in the playwright’s admittedly provocative scheme. Tendikayi elicits the most sympathy, but the playwright’s focus seems to be on Nyasha.
The actors give us the essentials, although they’re not always intelligible. As Marvelous, Saidah Arrika Ekulona is ramrod-straight, a commanding figure who sails through the house like Queen Mary. Shyko Amos brings levity and wryness to the role of Nyasha, while Cherise Boothe as Tendikayi and Ross Marquand as Chris, the engaged couple, are, well, quite engaging.
As Brad, Chris’ swinging cousin, Joe Tippett is impulsive, amusing and refreshingly realistic. As transplanted Zimbabweans, Patrice Johnson Chevannes is a stylish Margaret, Kimberly Scott a vociferous Annie, while Harvy Blanks struggles with his third-wheel role as Donald, the household’s meek patriarch.
Rebecca Taichman’s direction is precise, matching Gurira’s well-considered plot developments. In a play in which the familiar outstrips the exotic and a search for identity is in the driver’s seat, it helps to know where we’re going.
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 8, 2015