Sunday, February 15, 2015

Theater Review: Familiar -- Yale Rep

Cherise Boothe, Shyko Amos, Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Kimberly Scott. Photo © Joan Marcus, 2015
Family Cultures of Zimbabwe, America Might Be More Familiar Than You’d Think
By Lauren Yarger
A family struggles to find balance between its Midwestern and African roots. You might think you don’t have much in common with them, but by the end of Danai Gurira’s newest play getting its word premiere at Yale Rep, you’ll realize that everything actually feels very Familiar.

Whether they are shouting out greetings in their native Shona language, or whooping it up while watching their favorite Minnesota football team plays on TV, these folks are reflections of us and stretch our thoughts about just what is and isn’t familiar.

Donald and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks and Saidah Arrika Ekulona) have achieved the American dream. They have enjoyed successful careers, raised two daughters in their comfortable midwestern home (nice appointed by set designer Matt Saunders) and bicker like any long-married couple – even if it is over the unusual topic of whether to display a portrait of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe or a dog in the lovey living room.

Eldest daughter, Tendikayi  (Cherise Boothe ) is about to marry rich, white Chris (Ross Marquand ) and the couple isn’t sure just how much to call attention to her past. Youngest daughter, Nyasha  (Shyko Amos), and artist still supported by the couple,  has just returned from a visit to Zimbabwe  and embraces her African roots. She has been asked to share a song at the rehearsal dinner, but hasn’t been included as a bridesmaid in the wedding party.

The bridesmaids are Tendikayi’s “spiritual” sisters, she explains – friends from the couple’s evangelical Christian church, which teaches, among other things, that she and Chris should wait to have sex until they are married. When Nyasha scoffs, we understand that there are cultural differences in the family that have nothing to do with African vs. American roots.  Against the wishes of Marvelous, who wants her family follow its American culture, the bride and groom announce that they are incorporating a Zimbabwe custom into the marriage ceremony.

Assisting is Margaret (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), their  sister who comes over from Africa against the wishes of Marvelous, thanks to the surprising meddling of their other sister,  Annie (Kimberly Scott), a fashionista who embraces the American culture so much that she refused to teach her own children her native language.  When Margaret requires a spokesman to negotiate for the bride’s dowry on behalf of the groom, Chris begs his brother, Brad (Joe Tippett) to step in.

Besides the culture conflicts, the family must weather a medical emergency, discover a deeply buried family secret,  reinvent identities and decide whether this wedding will go forward and whether a marriage will survive. Are the roots of the family tree strong enough for the branches to bear the weight of these relationships?

Rebecca Taichman (Marie Antoinette) directs a tightly knit cast that delivers strong performances across the board. Each character gets full development and a range of emotion. Tippet gets laughs as the laid-back, black sheep of both families who just might be the one who really knows what’s important.

Adding to the storytelling by Zimbabwe native Gurira (Eclipsed, In the Continuum) are costumes from both cultures by Designer Toni-Leslie James and original music by jazz artist Somi. It’s a rich, thought-provoking tale of likable characters that really does feel as familiar as our next family get-together. 

Familiar runs through Feb. 21 at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Performance times vary. Tickets: $20-$98. www.yalerep.org; 203-432-1234. Student, senior, and group rates are available.


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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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