Steppenwolf’s ravenous ensembles are famous for chowing down on any script with a hint of meat on its bones. Danai Gurira’s 2015 comedy Familiar, which chronicles one crazy-ass day in the life of a Zimbabwean-American family, provides the actors with a feast.
The Chinyaramwira family has gathered in Minnesota for the wedding of eldest daughter Tendikay (Lanise Antoine Shelley) to a very sweet, very Christian, very Minnesotan white boy named Chris (Erik Hellman). Tendikay’s artist sister, Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper), has just returned from a personal sojourn to Zimbabwe—which everyone refers to as “Zim”—but she’s not the only one who made the trip: So has their imperious Zimbabwean auntie, Anne (played with an air of rough-and-tumble royalty by the superb Cheryl Lynn Bruce). Tendikay has invited Anne to honor the family’s roots by performing a traditional Roora ceremony—much to the enraged dismay of her mother, Marvelous (Ora Jones). (Jacqueline Williams is a treat as Marvelous and Anne’s other sister, the wine-swilling, MLM-pushing Margaret.)
The play is a contest among competing notions of kinship: blood, matrimony, national identity. Marvelous, who emigrated from Zimbabwe to America with her husband Donald (Cedric Young) decades ago, is dismissive of Anne’s old-world mindset, while Anne resents Marvelous and Donald’s assimilationism, and her Roora ceremony involves far more actual bargaining than Chris, Tendikay or Chris’s wonderful lug of a brother, Brad (Luigi Sottile), have bargained for.
An acclaimed actress—you might know her as Michonne on The Walking Dead or General Okoye in Black Panther—Gurira is also a superb playwright. Familiar’s bifurcated structure is like a reverse mullet: uproarious comedy in the front, serious family business in the back. In both modes, director Danya Taymor’s excellent production pulls no punches. And while the play’s story beats are conventional, it's got enough wit, insight and raw power to make them work. Even when the dishes are not unfamiliar, the flavor feels fresh.
Steppenwolf Theatre. By Danai Gurira. Directed by Danya Taymor. With Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Celeste M. Cooper, Erik Hellman, Ora Jones, Lanise Antoine Shelley, Luigi Sottile, Jacqueline Williams, Cedric Young. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.