4 out of 4 stars
“Our ancestors are dead, but they do not want our customs to die as well,” says Auntie Anne portrayed by the incomparable Steppenwolf ensemble member Cheryl Lynn Bruce. Steppenwolf’s world premiere of Familiar is a hilarious, fast-paced, endearing portrayal of a family searching to preserve their past while building a new future.
A Zimbabwean-American family living in Minnesota prepares for the wedding of their eldest daughter, but an unexpected guest arrives and the bride surprises the family by insisting on a traditional African ceremony, which leads to pre-wedding stress exploding into a full-on family feud.
The production is filled with a fierce love that many audience members can empathize with. It’s a story that particularly illustrates the strain on immigrant families in the United States; a potent theme pinpointed on cultural identity being white-washed for the Gatsby-esque “American Dream”. “Familiar, a celebration at its core, invites us all to peer inside an African home in America. It also seeks to evoke a healing of the pains and wounds that plague most families,” shares playwright Danai Gurira. Gurira is an award-winning playwright and actress with most recognizable works including “The Walking Dead”, Marvel Studios’ Black Panther and playwright of Eclipsed and The Convert. Born in the US to Zimbabwean parents and raised in Zimbabwe, Gurira’s intimate insight to the struggles of identity is empowering. She masters razor sharp wit told through integrated dual language and commentating on Christian practices with African culture, as well as identifying immigrant culture like when the entire family becomes passionately enthralled with the American football game on TV.
The scenic design by Kristen Robinson was well descript. Robinson’s inclusion of family pictures and touches of red and blues throughout the house making it a well-dressed modern home. The factions of a tree design on the far upper left wall eludes to how a family can be faction, but regardless you still see the roots where you all come from. A large white house staged in a way that the audience also sees the slated roofing giving the entire set a doll’s house feel. In addition, the multiple rooms and levels of action gives the stage the perfect setting for a comedy. At times it seems like the characters are too small for the space, yet as the play continues they grow much, much larger than the house itself. This character development is impressive not only from the playwright’s perspective, but the production team to be able to tease out so much of the intended power from the piece.
This Chicago premiere production is directed by Danya Taymor, who helmed Steppenwolf’s incredibly powerful 2017 production of Pass Over, and features one of the newest Steppenwolf ensemble members Celeste M. Cooper (Nyasha). Cooper’s performance is charming, as we see her character grow through childish antics and quick wit. Veteran ensemble member Ora Jones (Marvelous Chinyaramwira) gives a stunning performance by truly tapping into a misunderstood vulnerability which her character possesses. Joining them are Chicago favorites and Steppenwolf regulars Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Anne), Erik Hellman (Chris), Lanise Antoine Shelley, (Tendikayi), Luigi Sottile (Brad), Jacqueline Williams (Margaret Munyewa) and Cedric Young (Donald Chinyaramwira).
In accompaniment with a beautiful lighting design by Marcus Doshi paired with Justin Ellington’s sound design and musical direction, the production lifts the audience up into a forlorn homesickness. Familiar tugs at your heartstrings for understanding and acceptance, while also tickling your funny bone. It is a potent reminder that America has its faults, but at its core is a country of diverse culture that should be recognized more. It is a celebration of family and love. It speaks to so many families in our community that struggle with their own family story and sense of belonging. A wonderful production for our current national community.
Familiar runs now through January 13, 2019 in the Downstate Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre. For tickets or for more information, contact Audience Services (1650 N Halsted St) at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.
To learn more about Danai Gurira’s non-profit works click the links below:
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!