Playwright: Danai Gurira
At: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; Steppenwolf.org; $20-$109. Runs through: January 13
The foundation for Danai Gurira's 2015 play is, indeed, familiar. It takes place in a well-appointed living room as a family prepares for a wedding. Inevitably, tensions build and old wounds bleed anew as secrets emerge. It's a sturdy scenarioand one we've seen many times before at Steppenwolf.
But what makes Gurira's house stand out from the neighborhood of similar dramas is the many ways the Chinyaramwira family of Minnesotaheaded by Zimbabwean immigrants and academics Marvelous ( Ora Jones ) and Donald ( Cedric Young )struggle to define their mutual ties and their individual identities. The impending marriage of eldest daughter Tendikayi ( Lanise Antoine Shelley ) to Chris ( Erik Hellman ), a "little white boy from Minnetonka," is only one part of the culture clash. There's also Aunt Anne ( Cheryl Lynn Bruce ), newly arrived from "Zim" and determined to perform the "roora," or bride-price ritual of the old country, for her niece. Inevitably, this unearths old rifts among the sisters, including Jacqueline Williams' wine-guzzling Margaret.
The older generation's sibling rivalry finds its mirror image in the strained relationship between Tendikayi, a straitlaced Christian attorney, and sister Nyasha, a free-spirited singer/songwriter/feng shui consultant whose own recent trip to Zimbabwe inspires her to explore her roots. In turn, Chris, a button-downed Lutheran who works at a nonprofit for African economic development, has his own loose-cannon brother, Brad ( Luigi Sottile ), who drops by to help with the ritual and finds himself attracted to Nyasha.
Gurira, a well-known actor ( the film Black Panther and the TV series The Walking Dead ) as well as a writer, is Zimbabwean-American and, presumably, drew upon that dual identity in crafting these characters who must navigate the choppy waters between assimilation and loyalty to one's first home. In tone, the story moves from high-spirited physical comedy and verbal ripostes, especially in the first act, to more somber notes in the second. Under Danya Taymor's assured direction, the tonal shifts unfold without being forced.
The cast simply couldn't be better. Jones, Williams and Bruce are a thespian dream team, but Young and the younger members of the ensemble hold their own. We clearly see each character struggling to find firm footing as they face riptides of memory and revelation.
All reveal moments of anguish and resentment as well as deep understanding and empathy. Bruce's Aunt Anne may demonstrate her avaricious side in her "roora" demands. But she also carries memories of the Zimbabwean struggle for independence that Marvelous, who calls her country of origin "a sinking ship," has tried to forget. A recurring bit in which Donald keeps putting up a map of Zimbabwe, only to have Marvelous take it down and replace it with a wreath, moves from being comic to mournful as we learn more about the past circumstances of their lives.
Familiar doesn't take formal risks. It doesn't need to. The family story Gurira tells is evergreen but also fresh, immediate and heartfelt.