Monday, March 19, 2018

MUST SEE: Danai Guriria's Magnificent "Familiar" at the Guthrie

As an immigrant or a refugee, where does your allegiance belong? 


Photo by Dan Norman

Should you forget where you were born? Should you bide your time until you can return again? Should you try to assimilate where you have moved if you never intended to live there in the first place? Will you be left behind, and in which world? Who are you, really?

Photo by Dan Norman

These are some of the many complex questions asked in the marvelous staging of Familiar at the Guthrie Theater. Familiar is written by Danai Gurira, who most people have become familiar with through her role as the fearsome warrior General Okoye in the current global phenomenon that is Black Panther. Black Panther is a terrific movie, and no knocks against it or Gurira's performance - she's a knockout, and I loved the film - but it's a bit of a shame if that's all you know about her. Gurira's first real claim to fame comes through her work as a playwright, first on the Broadway hit Eclipsed, and then to subsequent plays, the most recent being Familiar. What you also may not know is that Gurira was born in Iowa and lived for several years in Minnesota, making her intimately familiar with this part of the Midwest, where Familiar is set. Gurira is an awe-inspiring writer, and the all-around excellence of Familiar is a testament to her sharp wit and a wisdom beyond her years. Ferociously funny, heartbreakingly poignant, and all around entertainment at its best, Familiar is a must-see and has shot to the top of my list of favorite shows of 2018 so far. 

Photo by Dan Norman

With two feet solidly packed in snow-laden Minnesota, Familiar tells the story of a family of Zimbabwean immigrants as they prepare for the marriage of their daughter Tendi to Chris, a white Christian boy from Minnesota. Tendi tries to surprise her mother by bringing her aunt Anne from Zimbabwe to perform a traditional marriage ceremony called roora (or loosely translated, "bride price") to honor her heritage - but everything goes terribly wrong the second Anne walks in the door. Through several hilarious circumstances, deep family secrets are revealed that change all of their lives forever. The plot twists are the best part of this show so I don't want to reveal any more, but just trust me - anyone will love this play. I was laughing so hard I was weeping by the end of Act I, and the entire audience leaped to their feet the second the curtains were drawn by the end.

Photo by Dan Norman

A spectacular cast is all you need to elevate this sound script to perfection, and Familiar has it. Shá Cage and Aishé Keita anchor the cast as sisters Tendi and Nyasha, respectively. They read just like real sisters, with dynamic personalities and a bruising fight in which neither holds back. Cage rips through a "sex" scene with joyful abandon and Keita surprises with some beautiful music towards the end of the show. Their parents Donald and Marvelous, played by Harvy Blanks and Perri  Gaffney, respectively, round out their family perfectly. Blanks has an exquisitely expressive face that conveys mountains without a word; he was one of my early favorites in the show, and he plays a vital role in navigating Familiar's emotional arch. Gaffney is stoic and steadfast in her part, and she does a wonderful job with the big reveal in Act II. Local legend Austene Van is saucy and gentle as Prof. Margaret Munyewa, one of Tendi's aunts; she is absolutely regal in this show, and I loved her mediating presence on stage. Wandachristine truly goes all out as the eccentric aunt Anne, bringing the tribal world to Minnesota with ironclad ambition. Quinn Franzen is great as the surprisingly likeable Chris; the open-minded example he sets throughout the family's roller coaster fight is a great example to follow. And Michael Wieser gives perhaps the most shockingly delightful performance as Chris's brother Brad; his character is just the touch of spontaneity that keeps the action unpredictable, and Wieser milks his part to the fullest from the second he steps in the room.

Photo by Dan Norman

I was a little underwhelmed with the production value overall, but that's ok - this play doesn't really need to be over-the-top. The scenic design by Adam Rigg looked to me like a mashup of Park Square's Dot and the Guthrie's own Blithe Spirit from last year - it was fine, but not particularly inspiring. I did enjoy the vibrant costumes from Karen Perry, which were pitch-perfect and really helped delineate the characters. Major props go out to the vocal coaches Lucinda Holshue and Kecha Nickson, who clearly worked hard to get the cast's accents right - especially the lines spoke in Shona. And I also want to specifically commend Marcela Lorca, who worked with the cast on some of the incredibly intimate physical choreography. It's clear that these actors trust each other and know exactly what they're doing, resulting in a great performance but also a good experience working with each other, and that's work to be celebrated. Bravo overall to the direction from Taibi Magar, who just knocked this play out of the park. The vision from start to finish is excellent, and it's a fabulous way to bring Familiar home to Minnesota.

Photo by Dan Norman

What made Familiar so special to me was the way it captured life as an African immigrant in America, and the completely separate - but equally difficult - questions that each generation wrestles with while living here. I have a window into that world through my in-laws. Their story is not mine to tell here, but I will say that Familiar nails so many aspects of what that experience is like. The biggest question, "Where do I belong?", is certainly not unique to African immigrants, but it is a very important one and something that is more starkly drawn in a state like Minnesota, where so much of our general population is homogenously white and removed from their European immigrant roots. Are you a traitor for leaving your country behind? What obligations do you have to your roots back home, especially your extended family? What about the children who are born here and know no other life - where do they fit? Are painful memories best left buried? What about when your children start marrying people of different faiths and cultures - how do you preserve your cultural heritage without alienating them or their new partners?

Photo by Dan Norman

Familiar has every element of great art - you will laugh until you weep, audibly gasp in shock and surprise, lean forward into difficult conversations, clap with applause at the hard truths that are honestly said, and celebrate the deserved recognition of just how much our immigrant neighbors struggle with sacrifice and identity every day. It's a masterpiece, and one that I strongly urge everyone here to see. Familiar opens a fresh, vital perspective not just on cultural elements we all take for granted here in Minnesota, but onto the deep, endless, painful struggle that all of our refugee and immigrant neighbors are grappling with every day. It tells this struggle with light and humor and strength and dignity, and that is the best way I can think of to deliver this important message. To see a perfect play (and learn a lot in the process), ensure you click here to get your tickets to Familiar and learn more about the show.

Photo by Dan Norman