Play review: Finding the “Familiar” in a strange world

Culture Curmudgeon

Cheryl Lynn Bruce (seated), Kim Sullivan, Andy Truschinski, Drew Kopas, Sharina Martin, Twinkle Burke, Shannon Dorsey, Inga Ballard in “Familiar” Photo by: Scott Suchman

Being an immigrant in the United States requires a certain amount of mental gymnastics regardless of your country of origin. You’re constantly straddling two worlds, which makes for a very fluid identity.

“Familiar”, now playing at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington D.C., is about that mutable self — specifically the interchangeable identities of members of a Zimbabwean American family living in present-day Minnesota. Written by “Walking Dead” and “Black Panther” star Danai Gurira, it’s a hilarious and heartbreaking play about immigrant families and what they have to sacrifice for their American dreams.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business show on CGTN America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

The play opens with the Chinyarawira family running about the house preparing for the arrival of their future son-in-law, who the matriarch (aptly named Marvelous and who’s played ferociously by Inga Ballard) calls the “little white boy from Minnetonka”.

Early on, nerves are fraying because there’s a push and pull between Zimbabwean and American culture. They’re trying to put their best foot forward to impress Chris, who’s engaged to the eldest daughter Tendi.

To further complicate the situation, Tendi wants her fiance to perform a Roora — a traditional Zimbabwean bride price ceremony to pay tribute to honor her culture, despite the fact that she’s never stepped foot on Zimbabwean soil her whole adult life. But this clash of cultures and the process of toggling between one’s original and adopted identity is something all immigrants go through.

The fluidity of the family’s identities are a riot of color and sound. Their mixing and matching of traditional dress from Zimbabwe and western clothing is sometimes jarring. They also switch from English to Shona with ease — sometimes switching between the two languages at every other word. It’s cacophonous yet beautiful — an aural representation of how families try to merge two worlds and its resulting culture clash.

Inga Ballard (as Marvelous) and Sharina Martin (as Tendi) in “Familiar” playing at Woolly Mammoth Feb 5 to Mar 4, 2018. Photo by Scott Suchman

While the play’s obvious culture clash lies with their future son-in-law, the Chiyarawiras are also struggling with their relationship with Zimbabwe. There’s no doubt that the parents are proud Zimbabweans because they were involved in the country’s struggle for independence. But there’s an underlying sadness when they talk about their home, pointing to something else going on underneath.

The tensions boil over when Aunt Anne arrives from Zimbabwe for a surprise visit arranged Tendi who wants her to perform the Roora for her fiance. Her younger sister Nyasha, her dad and her Aunt Margaret are all overjoyed to see Aunt Anne, except for her mom who flies into a rage upon seeing her sister. From the audience’s vantage point, her reaction is more suited for an enemy than a beloved family member.

Familial relationships are put to the test — with all the members of the Chinyarawira family facing off against one another. The first flare-up involves the two daughters Tendi and Nyasha.

Shannon Dorsey (as Nyasha) in Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s “Familiar” playing from Feb 5 to Mar 4, 2018 Photo by Scott Suchman

Tendi is the financially stable high-powered lawyer and a bible-thumping Christian. Nyasha is the free spirit, specializing in feng shui and playing indigenous instruments from Zimbabwe. It was just a matter of time before they got on each other’s nerves. In one of their most heated arguments, Tendi tells Nyasha to grow up and get a real job. Nyasha fires back by calling her older sister a “cold as Alaska Jesus freak”.

The aunties and the parents also get into it over the Roora and how they’re going to negotiate the final bride price. Marvelous thinks it’s a backward tradition. But Aunt Anne is adamant, saying: “What is a white good for,” she snaps, “except for money?”

Anne’s idea of a Roora is a request for a pound of flesh — a manifestation of Anne’s anger towards her country’s colonizers.

“We are losing our people, losing our blood,” Anne lamented. “Our children are clueless as to who they really are.”

This disconnect between first and second generations is what most immigrant families go through when they first move here. While some can embrace their new country as their real home, some can’t, at least not completely. It’s not clear where the Chunyarawiras are, but the father’s struggles with this process makes for the most touching scenes in the play.

Donald, the father, pines for Zimbabwe constantly and as he enters his twilight years, his desire to go home grows more urgent. But he’s also become an American even if it’s little more than an accoutrement to his Zimbabwean self. The dichotomy between his original and adopted identities is informed by the way he talks about the good friends he grew up in Zimbabwe.

Speaking about his last visit to his ancestral home, Donald describes meeting one of his best friends growing up and they talk of the struggles Zimbabwe has gone through in the last few decades. But his friend reminded him that Donald was no longer a Zimbabwean, and laughed at him for suggesting that he also had a difficult life. “I had no right to call it suffering,” Donald said. “I wasn’t one of them. I am a refugee of my own making.”

Kim Sullivan (as Donald) in “Familiar” at Woolly Mammoth playing Feb 5 to Mar 4, 2018. Photo by Scott Suchman

While Donald’s experiences are painful, they’re typical of immigrants who uproot themselves willingly and recreate their lives in the United States. At the end of the day, it’s all about establishing a new context. It’s always hard for new transplants to acclimate to this country, especially from a culture that’s different in almost every way.

One can only hope to find a groove like Marvelous, the family’s matriarch who gives everyone their sense of home. Indeed, in the moments where the family seems to be exploding, she becomes the glue that holds everything together. Through her they find a compromise between their bygone traditions and adopted culture to settle on a “Familiar” way of life.

“Familiar” is playing at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington D.C. until March 11.