- Familiar by Danai Gurira
The Midwest premiere of Familiar at the Guthrie Theatre was a homecoming for Danai Gurira, who experienced a surge in pop culture recognition in 2018 for her role in the film Black Panther. Of course, to many, Gurira is first and foremost a playwright and stage actor whose work exposes the diverse experiences of Africans on the continent and in the black diaspora. In her critically acclaimed play Eclipsed (2016), she brought the voices of women who survived the Liberian war to Broadway. In Familiar, Gurira focuses on a prosperous suburban Minnesota home, an atypical backdrop for a multilayered depiction of a matriarchal clan hailing from Zimbabwe. In doing so, she complicates representations of black family on the American stage.
Gurira’s play is exceptional among recent productions that explore the contemporary meaning of black diasporic life in the United States. First staged at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015, the first act opens on a comfortable living room. Donald Chinyaramwira, the patriarch of the family, enters and retrieves a large framed map of Zimbabwe, admiring it proudly and placing it on the mantelpiece. The map went up and down throughout the play, replaced and removed by various characters at seemingly random intervals. It was at once too earnest, too tacky, and too out of place for the thoroughly respectable decor. Donald’s wife, Marvellous, a formidable matriarch who appears fully bedecked in a royal purple gown by the last scene, is most strongly opposed to its display and the stubborn resistance to assimilation it represents. Despite Marvellous’s fierce opposition, the map served as the tangible link to Africa that many of the characters in Familiar sought.
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Donald’s persistent nostalgia for Zimbabwe is shared by his two adult daughters. Youngest daughter Nyasha grills her slightly tipsy aunt, Margaret, about her failure to speak Shona, their native language, with her sons. Nyasha is deep in the throes of angst about her lost heritage. This crisis is most powerfully exemplified by her trip to Zimbabwe to learn traditional Zimbabwean music. But despite their longings and efforts, Nyasha, her sister, and her cousins are privileged outsiders in their own land. Nyasha cannot even correctly greet her aunt in their native tongue.
Nyasha’s older sister, Tendi, also seeks to become more familiar with her Zimbabwean roots, with cataclysmic results. A successful African-born lawyer who has been raised in the United States, Tendi attempts to hold a traditional Zimbabwean bride-price ceremony, or roora, as a way of affirming her heritage. She enlists the aid of her aunt, Anne, the family black sheep, who operates with her own agenda. The reality of the ceremony and the family tensions it stokes are more than Tendi bargains for. Anne uses the occasion to seek reparations and revenge. As such, the roora becomes the catalyst for an earth-shattering revelation. In performance, such traumatic insights were often interspersed with moments of bawdy humor and physical comedy in a deft gesture toward American family sitcoms. The Chinyaramwira’s are hilarious. And yet, despite their aspirations, it was clear that they would never [End Page 118] be the Cosbys; their journey to America’s heartland has been too rough.
The familiar whiteness of the Midwestern landscape, of course, contributed to the Chinyaramwira’s sense of nostalgia and alienation. Its Lutheran churches; the hypocrisy of white community members; its banal knitting circles and the attendant hurts contained in those spaces all come to form a significant barrier in the Chinyaramwira’s shifting family dynamic and full assimilation. Tendi’s fiancé, Chris, is derisively referred to as a “white boy from Minnetonka,” which becomes shorthand for a knowable masculine whiteness, privilege, and cluelessness. The Chinyaramwira women’s overfamiliarity with his “type” foreshortened familial bonding.
Interestingly, the family’s desires for a deeper connection to African culture, however tenuous, was shared with the audience and provided a tie...