Theater Review: FAMILIAR (San Diego’s The Old Globe)

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by Tony Frankel on February 18, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


If familiarity does indeed breed contempt, then Danai Gurira’s family tragicomedy about whose legacy will control the future is aptly named Familiar. The title alludes to family; when loved ones squabble with disdain, disrespect, and disapproval over who they are and where they come from, the play asks, just what is familiar? A San Diego premiere from The Old Globe, this well-intentioned but methodic portrayal of familiar familial dysfunction — a balancing act of strident sit-com farce in the first act and sudden seriousness in the second — doesn’t quite earn its supposedly severe significance. While stronger stuff is at stake here than Familiar can convincingly present, Gurira (who starred as the bald-headed General Okoye in Black Panther) has a convincing knack for dialogue and colorful characters, while placing the always-current issues of immigration and belonging to the fore. And director Edward Torres’s octet — perfectly timed and realistically rooted performers — commit to their treacherously shifting stories with relish.

Ostensibly, Familiar is about what is not so routine in this family of Zimbabwean émigrés living in 2011 in a swank house in a Minneapolis suburb (Walt Spangler’s showroom set goes beyond the Globe’s normal high standards – it’s a masterpiece of McMansion modernity). The Chinyaramwira clan is about to participate in a pivotal rehearsal dinner for the elder daughter’s much-awaited wedding to a white religious activist. (Mind you, the play is not about — and doesn’t even address — the challenges of interracial marriage. It has other fish to fry.)

A devout believer and an astute businesswoman, Tendikayi (Zakiya Young) is fixing to marry virginal Chris (Lucas Hall), a sweet guy on a short leash. The bride’s doting parents, assimilated professional Marvelous (Cherene Snow) and gentle Donald (Danny Johnson), have planned a respectable Christian ceremony, with helpful input from conciliatory, wine-swigging Auntie Margaret Munyewa (Ramona Keller).

But all nuptial plans collapse with the arrival from Africa of interloping Aunt Anne (Wandachristine), Marvelous’s sister and a stalwart Zimbabwean patriot who insists on a traditional tribal marriage. In close order, autocratic Anne, now dolled up in full Zimbabwean regalia (costumes by Alejo Vietti), bullies everyone to prove their loyalty to the homeland. They must reinstate such customs as respectful obeisance to presumed village elders, a roughly $10,000 bride-price that’s placed in a wooden bowl as a dowry, the need for a cow, and assorted vows whose meaning escaped awareness long ago.

The culture clash over the upcoming hitching yields humorous “fish out of water” complications which include two white brothers clapping while rapidly moving on their knees. Then there’s an audience-pleasing bit of contrived horseplay: The bride’s singer/songwriter sister Nyasha (Olivia Washington) bursts in, having wandered outside into the Minnesota cold, only to have the groom’s slacker-vet brother Brad (a priceless Anthony Comis) strip down to his torso and rub his body all over her to alleviate her hypothermia — a stunning stunt to finish off the first act and set up more shenanigans in the second. But as Act II shifted gears away from sit-com, I had to ask myself why Nyasha was outside in her pajamas in the frigid weather, why Brad had to take off his shirt, and why nobody brought a blanket. (Later, I also thought, what if a black man had thrown down a white woman, exposed her upper regions, and snuggled into her chest as the lights go out…)

Then, what began as a funny family feud over a rite of passage becomes suddenly somber. In one over-freighted scene, family secrets and dirty laundry open up much more than any mockery of marriage. Abruptly and with a vengeance, Familiar is about something much more real than the previous slapstick.

This lurching stylistic switch takes its toll. I wasn’t sure what the real story is here — the follies of the first act, which often get lost in their own details, or the grown-up identity crisis in the second, which seems gratuitously gloomy, as if we were wrong to laugh in the first place.

Wisely, Torres keeps his cast from mugging as each actor remains fully invested in the roller-coaster ride, which means you’ll never be bored. But, in the end, whether an audience will take the final lesson about legacies more sincerely than the buffoonery that spoofs the family’s search for an “origins story” is very much in doubt.

photos by J.T. MacMillan and Jim Cox

The Old Globe
Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
ends on March 3, 2018
for tickets, call 619.234-5623
or visit The Old Globe

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