By Jean Lowerison
Tradition vs. change, adaptation vs. assimilation and good old generational clashes are all pretty familiar topics to most of us, perhaps even more so to foreign transplants to the U.S. and their offspring. And family squabbles are common to most people.
Iowa-born playwright/actor Danai Gurira, daughter of Zimbabweans, dives into these topics in her latest play, “Familiar,” at the Old Globe through March 3. Gurira was recently on the big screen in the film “Black Panther” (recently nominated for seven Academy Awards), and was Tony-nominated for her earlier play “Eclipsed.”
Zimbabwean immigrants Donald (Danny Johnson) and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Cherene Snow) live in a charming two-story house in a Minneapolis suburb, complete with a chandelier, art on the walls and a shelf with African-look pots (credit set designer Walt Spangler). Above the fireplace a map of Zimbabwe is placed over a black-and-white art piece. Donald is an attorney; Marvelous a scientist.
A wedding is in the offing for eldest daughter Tendikayi (Tendi). Tendi (Zakiya Young), an attorney like her dad, is marrying paleface American Chris (Lucas Hall), who works for a nonprofit human rights organization. The extended family is gathering for the rehearsal dinner.
endi’s Aunt Margaret (Maggie) is on hand, resplendent in a colorful and fashionable dress and heels. Marvelous’ youngest sister is played with charm by Ramona Keller.
Marvelous has decided the wedding will be “classy, civilized and modern.” As the family matriarch, she can be hard-nosed in approach, but means well. She has made the executive decision to assimilate into American life.
Aunt Annie (Marvelous’ oldest sister), who still lives in Zimbabwe, is the exception. When she shows up, resplendent in African garb, tribal attitudes and an imperious manner, sparks fly.
Bridegroom Chris is earnest and relatively clueless but adorably in love. He and Tendi want to include some elements of her African (Shona) culture in the proceedings. So they have agreed to a Roora (brideprice ceremony), which Annie will conduct. This will require Chris to bring a go-between — the prospective bridegroom is not allowed to negotiate for himself — so he brings his cousin Brad (Anthony Comis) along. Brad is, shall we say, quintessentially American, funny and absolutely wonderful.
Donald and Marvi’s youngest daughter Nyasha (Olivia Washington), a songwriter, has just returned from a trip to Africa and is filled with musical inspiration. Unlike others in the family, Nyasha wants to embrace her African heritage. Washington plays her with great energy and style. She also gets an absolutely hilarious scene. You have to see it to believe it.
The second act gets much darker — unnecessarily so, it seems, but Edward Torres’ fine direction and this sparkling cast carry you along, and Nyasha leaves the audience with a lovely ending.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.