Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Play Family Matters

Familiar by Danai Gurira, Directed by Taibi Magar, Seattle Rep through May 27.

Where is your home? Is it where you rest your head? Where your family is? Where your heritage is? Is it what makes you YOU?

Yeah, that's the sort of thing I'm thinking about in the wake of Familiar, by Danai Gurira. Ms. Gurira is a now-well-known actor from things like The Walking Dead (Michonne) and Black Panther (Okoye). But I'm going to concentrate here on her writing, despite the fact that the curtain call included the Wakandan salute. Because her writing is really, really good.

The central thrust of the play is similar to that of The Humans, from the start of this season. A family gets together and argues. In this case the family is from Zimbabwe (shortened to Zim throughout), and living in Minneapolis. Tendi (Sha Cage), the eldest daughter, a successful lawyer, is getting married. Her betrothed is Chris (Quinn Franzen), who is white, but that's a not big thing here. Or rather, there are bigger things going on. Chris and Tendi are both evangelicals, though she was raised Lutheran, though that's not the big thing here. Tendi's mother (Dr. Marvelous Chinyaramwira) is sort of cheesed off by this, since none of the family is in the wedding party. Father Donald Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks) bears up under his determined wife. Sister Nyasha (Aishe Keita), a struggling singer/songwriter and Aunt Margaret (Austene Van), who does direct sales and drinks (a lot of drinking in this play), descend on the household. 

And then someone invites Aunt Anne (Wandachristine) from Zimbabwe, Marvelous' defiant oldest sister who convinces the couple to undergo the roora, a Zimbabwe tradition where a bride price is set which the groom pays (sort of a reverse dowry in the western sense). Protip to all young couples considering marriage - when someone says you should engage in a family tradition, check out that tradition fully before saying yes.

So, we have a powderkeg here - Mother Marvelous wants nothing to do with old country tradition. Worse, Aunt Anne threatens Marvelous's own position as domineering matriarch. Nyasha wants to know more about her heritage, Tendi wants to know when Nyasha is going to get a real job. Both Donald and Margaret drink and try to stay out of the way. Chris is clueless but trying, and in performing the roora, is called upon to produce a negotiator, who ends up being his even more hapless brother Brad (a completely comic Michael Wieser).

And it all works, in a way that The Humans fails to. Each of these characters have their own agency, their own arcs, their own identity. Everybody gets a moment, every actor gets the chance to show that their character owns (or deserves to own) their own life. Families squabble and celebrate, schism are between generations and heritages, secrets are revealed, and the action ricochets from slapstick to pathos.The end result it to produce not an easy, simple picture but a collage of different experiences the builds to form a cohesive unit. The family bends but does not ultimately buckle.

The set is one of those mini-mansions common to successful professionals, and the Rep continues its run this season with double-stages, upper and lower, but has it make sense within the universe of the play itself. It looks like one of the upper-middle-class house beautiful abodes. Oddly, some of the sight lines are blocked from characters stacked in front of each other, which is s rarity for a Rep productions. Another challenge: the actors argue and walk on each others lines, and often dive fully into their ancestral Shona language, so sometimes you get a bit lost if you missed something important. 

But these are quibbles. The strength of the actors matches the strength of the text. It is worth seeing.

More later,