By Karen Isaacs
The immigrant experience in American has been explored multiple times on the stage — from musicals such as Ragtime, Rags and even Fiorello! to plays ranging from Philadelphia, Here I Come to Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and others. The issues of assimilation, retaining and respecting the cultural heritage and even a longing or sense that one should return have all been shown.
Familiar, the world premier play by Danai Gurira at Yale Rep through February 21 deals with these issues but with an immigrant group that has seldom been shown.
The play revolves around Chinyaramwira family who at first appear totally assimilated into American culture: upper middle class professional living in Minnesota and watching their American university’s football game on TV. But we soon learn more. Marvelous and Donald are from Zimbabwe and specifically the Shona tribe. (Zimbabwe in the colonial era was called Rhodesia and after the white minority declared independence from Britain in the ’60s underwent strife until 1979 when the African population took over control.)
Their youngest daughter, Nyasha, soon arrives from New York City for the wedding festivities of her older sister, Tendikayi. The two sisters could not be more different: Tendikayi is a lawyer in her father’s firm while Nyasha is an artist who still gets money from Dad. She has recently returned from Zimbabwe. Also living in the house is Marvelous’ sister, Margaret, who, while well educated, seems to live a more economically precarious existence. Chris, Tendikayi’s fiancée is white but works for a humanitarian agency that serves Africa.
So what happens? Too much. As often happens with new works, Guira has attempted to deal with too many issues so that each gets less than it deserves. Some of the issues have little to do with the immigrant experience.
Sibling rivalry rears its head, not just between Nyasha and Tendikayi but between Marvelous and Margaret and later with the eldest sister Annie. Nyasha feels that she is not as respected as Tendikyai, and she wonders why she is not a bridesmaid in the wedding. On the other hand, Tendkiayi believes more was always expected of her and that her sister has been spoiled.
Then there is the clash over culture. Marvelous is totally assimilated and sees no needs for the Shona marriage rituals. She is appalled when she learns that Annie is coming to the wedding and even more appalled with Tendikayi announces that Annie will conduct a “roora” or the negotiation over the bride’s dowry.
The two acts of the play seem sometimes to be two halves that don’t fit together. The first stresses comedy — a running gag about a two pictures that family members keep hanging and taking down. That is until it turns. The second act is more family drama, guilt, recriminations and the revealing of secrets. So many secrets are revealed that the audience is left wondering if anything was ever said or acknowledged.
But at the heart of the play is the question of what do immigrants owe to both their children and their former homeland? Should you teach your children the old customs and language? In the early 20th century, schools urged immigrant parents to avoid speaking or teaching their native languages to their “American” children under the mistaken belief that it would hinder the development of their English language skills.
What do we owe our native countries? Earlier immigrant groups, when travel was much more difficult, sent money, food, clothing and other items to the families back at home. Developing countries talk about the “brain-drain” that occurs when their brightest and best educated leave for jobs in the first world — not just the U.S. but throughout Europe and parts of Asia. Do these people have a special responsibility to help their developing homeland grow economically?
These are fascinating questions that don’t really get brought up until nearly the end of the play when it is too late to see and feel it. It becomes just another part of the family drama.
The cast does an excellent job not only with the accents that the older characters have but also appearing to be totally comfortable and natural in the dialogue in Shona. It is difficult to fault anyone though it seemed as though Kimberly Scott as Annie verged on stereotype but that may be how the character is written.
Saidah Arrika Ekulona gives us a Marvelous who is just that — marvelous — put together, always in control and seemingly the dominant force in the household. Harvy Blanks as Donald gets the most out of a role which requires him to bury much and seem on the surface to be quite passive. Shyko Amos as Nyasha and Cherise Boothe as Tendikayi play the sibling rivalry mixed with the genuine love and affection. Both are given “big” moments and deliver on them. Patrice Johnson Chevannes is the go-between as Maragaret. Both Ross Marquand as Chris and Joe Tippett as his brother Brad make the most of underwritten roles.
Scenic designer Matt Saunders has created a beautiful suburban home which reflect both the affluence of the couple and their assimilation. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James has let the costumes enhance our understanding of the characters — from Marvelous, Donald and Margaret’s conservative Western apparel to the more casual attire of Brad.
Director Rebecca Taichman may not have thoroughly brought out the central focus of this play, but she has treated all the characters with compassion and understanding.
Familiar is a promising work that tries to do too much but raises interesting issues. At times I wish there was projections translating some of the dialogue which is in Shona.
Familiar is at the Yale Rep through Feb. 21. For tickets visit yalerep.org.