A modern bride desires to start married life by honoring an ancient tradition of her African forebearers. But when an elder from Zimbabwe arrives to perform the ceremony it stirs up a hornet’s nest in “Familiar” on stage at The Old Globe.
The story takes place in the stylish, middle-upper-class Minneapolis suburban home of Donald (Danny Johnson, whose performance is a lynchpin of the story) and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Clerene Snow, whose commanding presence masks utter heartbreak). The couple are highly educated professionals who decades earlier escaped the violence of the Zimbabwean war of independence by emigrating to the Midwest where they embraced Christianity, NFL football and Jane Fonda workouts. They also raised two daughters in all things red, white and blue to the exclusion of their African roots.
The youngest is Nyasha (an endearing Olivia Washington), a struggling singer-songwriter who stays stuck in her pajamas the entire story not unlike the way she seems stuck in her life choices that are kept financially afloat through cash infusions from her doting father.
The oldest, Tendikayi (Zakiya Young), is a confident, successful attorney engaged to Chris (Lucas Hall) who is white and works for a nonprofit human rights organization that carries out its mission in Africa. The couple have strong Christian beliefs but are respectfully committed to having a roora—a traditional Shona dowry ceremony—as a prelude to the wedding.
Marvelous, who has carefully choreographed a Christian ceremony befitting the family’s assimilation, balks at what she perceives as an intrusion by a way of life to which she no longer wishes to be reminded. But Marvelous is in for a bigger jolt when the doorbell rings and in walks her estranged sister Anne (plays as a force of nature by Wandachristine), who has just arrived from “Zim” not only to conduct the roora but also to criticize her sister for failing to teach her children the Shona language and family customs. Upon receiving this unbraiding in front of everyone, the body language displayed by Marvelous is akin to laying down a tire-puncturing spike strip and daring someone to drive a vehicle over it.
Fasten your seatbelts as Auntie Margaret (Ramona Keller as the sassy, clothes-horse girlfriend we all want in our lives) consumes increasing amounts of wine in her efforts to maintain some semblance of peace between Anne and Marvelous. Required to have a designated intermediary for the roora, the increasingly bewildered Chris has to rely on ham-handed, distant-relative-practically-a-stranger Brad (Anthony Comis) to negotiate the bride price. Cash and cows are discussed. The constant overlay of voices, many of them with Zimbabwean accents, benefits immensely from the work of voice and dialect coach Nathan C. Crocker.
At one point, Nyasha bolts out the door without coat or mittens into the Minnesota winter deep freeze after an argument with sibling Tendi. High marks to lighting designer Jason Lyons who imparts warm hues indoors and piercing cold outdoor light coming through the panes of the front door. Scenic design by Walt Spangler is compelling. Costume design by Alejo Vietti is superb. Sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen convincingly melds African drum melodies with American standards.
Through it all, Donald maintains a low, even-keeled profile in keeping with his practical advice to bridegroom Chris on how to maintain a long marriage: “Compromise, listen, persevere and… (long pause) …I don’t have a fucking clue.”
But the story isn’t played strictly for laughs. The highly thought-provoking second act reveals a take-your-breath-away family secret that connects the dots on why some family members felt compelled to distance themselves thousands of miles from the old life and others felt they had no choice but to stay. A framed map of Zimbabwe symbolizes competing mindsets as, throughout the story, Donald keeps positioning the map prominently on the fireplace mantle only to have Marvelous remove it to a dark corner.
By Lynne Friedmann