Familiar at the Guthrie Theater
No matter who you are, where you've been or where you come from, you'll see yourself and some of your family in this new relatable and hilarious comedy. Whether you’re black or white. Whether you’re single or married. Whether you have siblings or are an only child. There is something for everyone in the Guthrie’s newest production. Familiar opened at the Guthrie last week and I can honestly say it’s one of the wittiest shows I’ve ever seen. It’s written by Danai Gurira (Black Panther, The Walking Dead) and is a testament to just how talented of a writer she is. In 2015, she made her writing Broadway debut with Eclipsed which made headlines for it’s all female and black cast and creative team. While Eclipsed had more of a darker tone to it, Familiar is quite the opposite with sharp wit, hilarious dialogue and an all-around relatable family, no matter where you come from.
Familiar takes place in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota during the late winter season. The story opens on a Zimbabwean family that is getting ready for their eldest daughter’s wedding, Tendikayi (or Tendi). Nyasha, the youngest daughter, is a free spirit and musical artist who just returned from a trip to Zimbabwe to attempt to learn more about her family’s culture while her mother, Marvelous, attempts to keep them rooted in their new American life. One by one more family arrives at the house including Tendi, her fiancé Chris (who happens to be white), and Marvelous’ two sisters Margaret and Anne. Tendi surprises her mother with the arrival of her aunt Anne as she is to perform the Roora (or bride price) in honor of her family’s heritage before the wedding. The journey of the evening takes plenty of twists and turns from jaw-dropping family reveals to hilarious interactions that almost had me falling out of my seat.
Before I dive into how utterly fantastic this show was, I want to give recognition to this marvelous set design by Adam Rigg. I saw a tease of the set on the Guthrie’s Instagram a few days before and was blown away. The overall design is simply gorgeous and has the perfect amount of elegance with the dark wood accented throughout the railings and living room. You can tell whoever decorated it (in the script’s sense) clearly has good taste and has worked hard to keep it maintained. It perfectly captures the mother and father of this family and everything they’ve had to do to survive and make a name for themselves. I quite literally saved the Instagram photo so down the road I can give it to an interior designer and say, “I’d like this please.”
The cast is marvelous, and I truly mean that in every sense of the word. Each actor full embodies their character and respects them as if they are a real person they know. Because of this I can’t simply write about one or the other, so I must take the time to quickly mention how fantastic each and every actor was in their role. Harvy Blanks plays the patriarch of the family, Donald Chinyaramwira and really does pull at the heart strings towards the end of the show. Sha Cage plays Tendi and is perfectly cast and must go through a tremendous amount of emotional range throughout the two acts. She does this beautifully and effortlessly. Quinn Franzen plays Chris and is so stupidly charming that I think I went weak at the knees even whilst sitting. He really does care for Tendi no matter what the situation is and manages to stick by her side throughout the crazy evening.
Perri Gaffney plays Dr. Marvelous Chinyamurindi and is one of the most relatable characters in the entire production. She’s the type of mother that will do anything for her children and no matter how bothersome she may be to her children, you know she does it out of love and only wanting the best for her kids. Austene Van plays Professor Margaret Munyewa (Marvelous and Anne’s other sister) and really does a wonderful job of keeping the mood light when the going gets tough. Aishe Keita, who plays Nyasha, is head strong and eager to continue learning about her families past and heritage. She honestly reminded me a lot of myself. Wandachristine, who plays Anne Mwarimba, is the comedic anchor of this show. Her timing is spot on and lends her self to each scene being a force on stage. Last, but certainly not least, is Michael Wieser who plays Chris' brother, Brad. While Brad isn't on stage as much as the rest, he still manages to be one of the most memorable with the hysterical Act I finale, which I won't spoil, while also being extremely endearing to Nyasha.
One of the heaviest themes of the show that I wanted to touch on is not only family but sisterhood. The younger generation mirrors the older generation in such unique and intricate ways. Tendi is the one who leads a “normal American life” as a lawyer and yet she is the one who initially reaches out to her Aunt Anne, who currently still lives in Zimbabwe. Tendi teters on the balance of her families roots and her families values now in America. Meanwhile there is a power struggle between Nyasha, who wishes to reconnect with her families roots while her mother wants nearly nothing to do with it. It’s an interesting balance of seeing where all these women are with their connections to their family’s heritage.
Familiar is a witty, hilarious and touching show about what it means to know your family’s history. Taibi Mager, the director, leads a cast that has impeccable comedic timing and pacing of the show. Gurira fabulous writing shows off how versatile of an artist she is. Familiar plays at the Guthrie through April 14, 2018.
*Photo Credit: Dan Norman