Culture clashes abound in Danai Gurira’s 'Familiar' at the Guthrie

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

Now playing at the Guthrie, Familiar, which premiered in 2015, was written by Danai Gurira. A successful playwright whose Eclipsed (2009) earned a Tony nomination for Best Play, Gurira is more widely known as an actor whose screen credits include Black Panther and The Walking Dead.

Set in an unnamed Minneapolis suburb (Gurira went to college at Macalester), Familiar employs a classic dramatic premise. Tendi (Shá Cage), a 34-year-old attorney, brings her fiancé, Chris (Quinn Franzen), home to meet her rambunctious extended family on the eve of the couple’s wedding. Tendi’s parents are Zimbabwean immigrants; her mother, Marvelous (Perri Gaffney), is happily planning for a conventional Christian ceremony.

Tendi’s aunt Anne (Wandachristine), however, has flown in with plans to conduct a traditional Shona ceremony known as “roora,” in which Chris will negotiate a bride price with the help of his confused brother Brad (Michael Wieser). The engaged couple agree, expecting a largely symbolic nod to the family’s roots—but they’re in for some surprises.

While the story’s basic structure is timeworn and some key developments feel awkwardly contrived, Gurira builds a lot of substance and character-driven comedy into this play about pride and guilt in a bi-continental family. The differences between the family’s native country and their adopted home extend beyond cultural customs: Zimbabwe has been racked by political and economic upheaval, leading to profound suffering for Tendi’s family.

At one point, Chris suggests that it’s time for Tendi to face the meaning of her identity as an African woman. That’s a presumptuous statement from a self-described average white guy, but it does allude to the difficult choices facing his fiancée and her family. As professionals who’ve achieved significant wealth, what do they owe to “Zim,” and to themselves?

Director Taibi Magar doesn’t run from the tension these characters are experiencing. Most of them spend much of the play along a continuum from annoyance to outrage, and Magar honors the integrity of those emotions while also hitting Gurira’s comic notes for a few big laughs.

Cage’s leading role is tremendously challenging: She has to convey the authority of her confident character and then pivot to devastated vulnerability, all while leaving room for a little silliness. She delivers a powerhouse performance, filling the spacious stage with the intensity of her character’s frenzied feelings. As Tendi’s parents, Gaffney and Harvy Blanks ably lead the rest of the cast.

Familiar will both open and moisten many eyes with its exploration of some of the pains and the joys of the immigrant experience, in a meaningful contemporary context.

Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through April 14