Review: “Familiar,” by Zombie Slayer Danai Gurira

There’s plenty familiar about “Familiar,” a well-told immigrant-family drama having its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons.

It’s written by the keenly observant Danai Gurira, who plays sword-wielding warrior Michonne on “The Walking Dead.” As well: Gurira’s play counts among its leads Tamara Tunie, who has appeared in literally hundreds of episodes of “Law & Order: SVU,” as medical examiner Dr. Melinda Warner.

Beyond that, it’s not just familiar names that make this two-act story about assimilation, tradition and identity comforting and rewarding—it’s how universal the story, finally, seems.

The family at the heart of “Familiar” is, like the playwright, Zimbabwean and American.

Mom and dad Marvelous and Donald (Tunie and Harold Suratt) came to Minnesota from Africa a generation earlier. The play is set on the day before their eldest daughter, Tendi (Roslyn Ruff), is to marry a good, God-fearing Midwestern boy (Joby Earle).

“Marvi,” a biochemist, and Donald, a successful lawyer, seem to be living the American Dream. The only clear friction in their relationship is over a piece of artwork in their living room. He keeps hanging a map of Zimbabwe. She keeps replacing it with an innocuous floral print. The device telegraphs questions at the core of “Familiar.”

The plot is driven primarily by the arrival from Africa of Marvi’s sister, Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor), who is determined to see her niece sent off with a ritual “roora,” in which the groom “reimburses” the bride’s family for their “gem.” This tradition once involved cows, but today—at least as far as Anne is concerned—designer luggage is fair game.

Everyone has different ideas about how much African tradition should be preserved in Tendi’s wedding. An unanticipated revelation in the second-act finally forces the question, while raising new ones for mother, father, aunts and daughters: Do we consider ourselves Zimbabwean, or are we assimilated Americans of Zimbabwean descent?

Tunie is excellent as the fussy mother who escaped turmoil as a child and hasn’t romanticized the past. Suratt is her match, as a henpecked husband with strong passions bubbling below the surface. Myra Lucretia Taylor is in grand operatic form as the insistent aunt, who comes harboring unsettling family secrets.

Ruff, who in dress and demeanor evokes some of Gurira’s screen presence, unpeels multiple layers as a woman trying to maintain composure on the most important day of her life. Ito Aghayere is full of heart as younger sister Nyasha, who fancies herself a singer and has just returned from a spirit-awakening visit to “Zim.” Joe Tippett (“Airline Highway”) is a walking comic relief valve as the groom’s aimless brother.

“Familiar" was first staged at Yale in 2014. At the same time the drama is having its premiere here, Gurira’s play “Eclipsed” is readying for its Broadway opening, after a run last year at The Public.

The gold in Gurira’s relatable immigrant story is an insistence on even-handedness and a dexterous way of introducing characters who gradually blossom into complex individuals, with motives anyone can appreciate and respect.

“Familiar,” through March 27 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $75 and up. Call 212-279-4200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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