(l to r) Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Jacqueline Williams in ‘Familiar.’ (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
By Becky Sarwate
Danai Gurira has built a Hollywood brand playing characters known for their physical and mental strength. In television shows such as AMC’s The Walking Dead, and blockbuster films like 2018’s Black Panther, Ms. Gurira commands attention with portraits of women who can love and be loved, while also kicking ass and making important decisions. Ms. Gurira has become an icon for the #MeToo era as women work to create safer, more powerful and public spaces for themselves, as well as a global HIV advocate. Who among us hasn’t fantasized about going full General Okoye on a street harasser?
Yet I confess that until recently, I was unaware of Ms. Gurira’s accomplishments as a prolific and celebrated playwright. Is there nothing this woman can’t do? I’m an excited fangirl all over again after attending the opening of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s newest production, a mounting of Ms. Gurira’s 2015 play, Familiar. With humor, sharp dialogue, physical comedy and, not incongruently, large helpings of emotional heft, the work engages questions of identity, family dynamics, and the immigrant experience.
All productions as successful as this one start with great source material. Familiar drops in on the Chinyaramwira family, Zimbabwe-Americans living in Minnesota. In climate and culture, the Midwestern locale couldn’t be more different from life in the African nation, and Ms. Gurira looks at a wide scope of contrasts with remarkable balance. For every obvious benefit of material wealth and comfort, the play argues, there’s a tradeoff. These various concessions are explored through the play’s philosophically diverse characters, and they are brought together through an enduring trope of emotional volatility: the family wedding.
Steppenwolf’s production casts Lanise Antoine Shelley as Tendikayi, the eldest daughter of Marvelous (Ora Jones) and Donald (Cedric Young) Chinyaramwira. Tendi is an accomplished lawyer, a devout Christian, and bride-to-be. Her fiancé, a white American man named Chris (Erik Hellman) is an underpaid but noble humanitarian advocate. Tendi wants to be a partner in a corporate law firm; Chris wants to save the world. What the two have in common is an evident love for each other, founded in a common faith. Ms. Shelley and Mr. Hellman render the characters beautifully, never allowing either to disappear into a stereotype.
On the day of their rehearsal dinner, Tendi announces that she and Chris have flown in Aunt Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), Marvelous’ sister, to perform a traditional African wedding ritual. From there all psychological hell breaks loose. Marvelous must confront a past she’d rather forget. Donald wrestles with acute Zimbabwe homesickness. Tendi learns an identity-shifting secret. Tendi’s younger, more free-spirited sister Nyasha (Celeste M. Cooper) processes and interprets events through bursts of feeling and creativity. The amazingly talented cast fully realizes Ms. Gurira’s emotional meteor shower of a script.
The impassioned events that surround the wedding are balanced with deft bursts of humor, mirroring the universal, tragicomic nature of life. Many of the script’s funniest lines are delivered by Chris’ younger brother Brad (Luigi Sottile), a military veteran served up as the bad boy hedonist response to Chris’s piety. Mr. Sottile tears Brad’s well-timed bro humor from the page and invests his portrayal with enough empathy and sweetness to have audiences rooting for a spark between Brad and Nyasha to turn into a flame.
The production is also supported by excellent creative work behind the scenes. Director Danya Taymor, a Steppenwolf regular, does a terrific job of keeping a complex, larger than life story and its players humming in unison. Scenic designer Kristen Robinson creates a cavernous, modern and well-kept Minnesota McMansion for the stage. The proportions and lighting are so well-executed, I found myself fighting an urge to run upstairs to have a look at the second-floor bedrooms. It’s the American model home for an affluent immigrant family with something to prove to themselves and the world. It’s exactly right.
Familiar offers tears and laughter, powerhouse performances, and plenty of important questions to consider after exiting the theater. It’s the perfect union of quality material and expert execution.
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre
1650 N Halsted, Chicago
Through January 13
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.