Review: Familiar, a play by Danai Gurira at Playwrights Horizons

First of all, I hadn’t realized that the playwright was Danai Gurira, the same one who wrote Eclipsed which had such a successful run off broadway last year and has now made it to Broadway this year (in fact just opened a week or so ago) and with the star power of Lupita Nyong’o, academy award winner for best supporting actress in 12 Years a Slave. I’m guessing it has longer staying power than Hughie, which showcased the brilliant Forest Whitaker, nominated for best actor for his role in The Butler, but which had mixed reviews and has already announced that it will close (not unsurprisingly to me since I feel that the real fault of that play was not the acting but the actual play itself, yes, I’m sorry Eugene O’Neill). Nevertheless, I have now already gone and bought a ticket to see Eclipsed, simply because I have become a huge fan of Danai Gurira after seeing Familiar.

But digressions! Ok, back to the topic at hand! Familiar is an absolutely wonderful play. It is at times delightful, exasperating, extremely funny, and finally, heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. In fact, I cannot remember a play in which I have had a 180 degree shift in feeling from the end of the first act to final scene. This is a compliment–actually huge compliment–to the playwright and director.

I happened to forgo a swim practice for it. In my mind, I was having a very tough decision about whether to see the play or go swim. I needed the swim workout because I am trying desperately to get myself into decent swim shape for a big competition meet at the end of April. On the other hand, I had already booked the ticket for that night. And while I could cancel and re-schedule, from my past experiences, I knew that if I skipped the play the chances of my re-booking and seeing it again were virtually nil. So…I chose the play. The swim meet will be what it will be. But goodness! How glad I was to have made that decision!

Familiar is a play about a Zimbabwean family fully transplanted to somewhere in suburban Minnesota on the eve of one of the daughters getting married to a white boy, who is actually referred to by his soon to be mother-in-law, “little white boy from Minnetonka”!

What is surprising about Familiar is that we start with all the familiar stereotypes in a getting ready for a wedding ceremony of a daughter but we end up with something that transcends the entire genre. Let’s start with the stereotypes. We have: 1) the very controlling mother; 2) the deliberately clueless, passive aggressive father; 3) the sub-par aunt who has turned to wine as her salve; 4) the underachieving second daughter who desperately tries to win affection by going back to Zimbabwe; 5) the overachieving, and successful, first daughter who is the one marrying the little white boy from Minnetonka; and 6) the somewhat, not-so-deliberate, but deliberate all the same (if you know what I mean), clueless, very white, and human rights activist groom (yes, to be clear, that is the “little white boy from Minnetonka”).

If these are the stereotypes, the play breaks out of them with a few key things. First of all, there is a second aunt who is brought in from Zimbabwe. Let me clarify that this family and the other aunt have all immigrated to America and absorbed the American culture. So much so that their parents never taught them a word of the Shona language, their Zimbabwean language. But this aunt, who for whatever reason did not immigrate to America, is not going to compromise any tradition just because she is in America and the daughter and family have fully assimilated to American ways (the daughter at one point is determining what should be borrowed).

Second, there is the screw-up military brother of the human rights activist groom who is called in at the last minute to help with the African ceremony. He is ultimately not the center of the play, but wow! Does he certainly play his part so you remember him. Familiar is worth going to see just for his major scenes.

And third, there is the hidden reason for why the mother is so controlling and the father so passive aggressive. I can’t say much more than this without being a spoiler alerter. What I will say is that control freaks and passive-aggressive people tend to be that way for a reason. And what ultimately makes them human–or not human–are the reasons for how they got to be those types of poeple. What makes this play so wonderful is that is provides humanity for both the deliberate control freak and the deliberately clueless, slightly passive-aggressive father.

Familiar is a very funny play in the sense that it has some hugely funny scenes that will keep you laughing days after you have seen the play. But it is not really a funny play. It is really a serious conversation about identity and how to forge an independent identity while at the same time trying to incorporate the natural heritage that we all possess. Humor runs through the play, but it is not a comedy. The wonderful thing about Familiar is that it ultimately presents itself as an comedic drama (very comedic drama!) with a hopeful end game rather than a black comedy with no way out.

Familiar is currently showing at Playwrights Horizons. It has been extended through April 10.