Danai Gurira's warmhearted 'Familiar' debuts at Steppenwolf

 
 
Updated 11/28/2018 1:06 PM
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  • A long-held family secret threatens to disrupt a wedding in "Familiar," a family dramedy by Danai Gurira in its regional premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre.

    A long-held family secret threatens to disrupt a wedding in "Familiar," a family dramedy by Danai Gurira in its regional premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

"Familiar" -- ★ ★ ★

At the core of any immigration tale lies a struggle that goes beyond the ordeal of leaving one's home and beginning life anew in a foreign land.

It has to do with assimilation. How fully do immigrants integrate into the culture of their adopted country? What of their heritage do they preserve? What do they discard? And who do they become as a result?

Those questions underscore "Familiar," a warmhearted, funny, albeit uneven, domestic dramedy by playwright/actress Danai Gurira ("The Walking Dead," "Black Panther") that opened this week at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

In addition to assimilation, identity and tradition, the 2016 Tony Award nominee (for her play "Eclipsed") also examines family conflicts, specifically the prickly relationships between siblings that cross generational as well as cultural lines. Moments in "Familiar" border on madcap and the clash of African and American traditions makes for laugh-out-loud scenes in director Danya Taymor's well-acted production.

Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Ora Jones), right, has a heart-to-heart with her daughters Tendikayi (Lanise Antoine Shelley), left, and Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper) in Danai Gurira's family dramedy "Familiar" at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Ora Jones), right, has a heart-to-heart with her daughters Tendikayi (Lanise Antoine Shelley), left, and Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper) in Danai Gurira's family dramedy "Familiar" at Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Gurira's sense of family dynamics is spot-on. Her writing has humor, depth and compassion, reflected in the buoyant first act. However, implausibilities abound in the more somber second act, where the revelation of a decades-old family secret feels forced.

The action unfolds in the handsome home of Zimbabwe émigrés Donald and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (the nicely taciturn Cedric Young and the always compelling Steppenwolf ensemble member Ora Jones), a lawyer and MIT-trained biologist who immigrated to the United States some 30 years earlier to escape civil war. The couple -- whose conflicting opinions on cultural representation are reflected in a comical skirmish over the placement of a framed map of Zimbabwe -- eventually settled in Minneapolis. There, they established highly successful careers and raised two daughters in upper middle-class comfort.

Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), left, insists upon performing a Zimbabwean marriage ritual as part of her niece's wedding in Danai Gurira's "Familiar." Jacqueline Williams, right, plays Anne's youngest sister Margaret in Steppenwolf Theatre's production.
Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), left, insists upon performing a Zimbabwean marriage ritual as part of her niece's wedding in Danai Gurira's "Familiar." Jacqueline Williams, right, plays Anne's youngest sister Margaret in Steppenwolf Theatre's production. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

The youngest, peppery Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper, a pitch-perfect free-spirit), is a feng shui consultant and aspiring musician. Nyasha has just returned from her first trip to Zimbabwe eager to more fully embrace the cultural heritage her parents failed to pass on to their children. She arrives just in time for the rehearsal dinner for older sister and bride-to-be Tendikayi (a poised, precise Lanise Antoine Shelley). Tendi, a lawyer and fervent Christian, is engaged to fellow evangelical Chris (Erik Hellman, devotion embodied), "a skinny white boy from Minnetonka" who co-founded an international human rights organization.

Also on hand are Marvelous' younger sister Margaret (played with warmth and wistfulness by Jacqueline Williams) and her older sister Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce, a towering presence) whose unexpected arrival from Zimbabwe -- or "Zim" as Nyasha prefers -- intensifies the pre-wedding flurry.

Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper) and Brad (Luigi Sottile) commiserate on having highly successful elder siblings in Steppenwolf Theatre's production of "Familiar."
Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper) and Brad (Luigi Sottile) commiserate on having highly successful elder siblings in Steppenwolf Theatre's production of "Familiar." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

The mood shifts from cheerfully chaotic to tense after the unapologetically mercenary Anne announces she intends -- at Tendi and Chris' request -- to perform the roora, an African marriage ritual (reminiscent of a dowry) in which the prospective groom through his representative or munyai offers gifts, including money and cattle, to the prospective bride's family for the honor of marrying their "gem."

Serving as munyai is Chris' disarmingly affable younger brother Brad (Luigi Sottile, who lights up the stage). The former soldier is happy to oblige his new in-laws, including Nyasha, whom he recognizes as a kindred spirit -- the blundering sibling who can't measure up to the perfect firstborn.

Margaret (Jacqueline Williams) and her brother-in-law Donald (Cedric Young) wrestle with returning to their native Zimbabwe in Danai Gurira's family dramedy "Familiar" at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Margaret (Jacqueline Williams) and her brother-in-law Donald (Cedric Young) wrestle with returning to their native Zimbabwe in Danai Gurira's family dramedy "Familiar" at Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

The strength of Steppenwolf's ensemble is evident in the second act where Gurira provides nearly every character with a weighty speech. For Young, it's Donald's moving expression of long-repressed guilt over not doing more for his native Zimbabwe. For Williams, it's Margaret's quiet regret that she has not maintained a connection to her past. And for the indomitable Jones, it's an impassioned declaration from Marvelous of where her future lies.

Unfortunately, those impeccably performed, soul-baring soliloquies emerge from the contrived revelation, which blunts their impact. As a result, what felt so true in the first act, rings false in the second.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 13. No shows Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. Also 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 and 9; 1:30 p.m. Dec. 23; 2 p.m. Dec. 12, 19 and 26

Running time: About 2 hours 10 minutes, with intermission

Tickets: $20-$109

Parking: $12-$14 in the lot adjacent to the theater; limited street parking

Rating: For adults; contains mature themes, language and sexual situations

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