Cross-cultural conflicts are at the heart of Danai Gurira’s overstuffed new play, depicting an emigrated, upscale Zimbabwean family living in suburban Minneapolis as it prepares for the wedding of their eldest daughter. But as the show’s premiere at New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theater makes clear, it’s the cross-genre conflicts that trip up the production as it careens from sitcom to melodrama to political tragedy to human comedy.
Fresh ideas of race, roots and responsibility abound from talented scribe Danai Gurira, who made an impact with her terrific play “Eclipsed” and as co-writer for Obie-winner “In the Continuum” — though she’s best known as the actor who plays Michonne in TV’s “The Walking Dead.” Seen at first through a prism of a jokey sitcom, this new play’s high aspirations just don’t fit, at least not under Rebecca Taichman’s helming.
When the bride-to-be and successful lawyer Tendikayi (Cherise Boothe) and her respectful white fiancé Chris (Ross Marquand) decide on a traditional African marriage ritual, her aggressively assimilated, high-achieving mother Marvelous (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) is none too pleased with this impediment to her “classy affair.”
When Marvelous’ older sister Annie (Kimberly Scott) from Zimbabwe arrives to perform the ritual in her well-appointed home (nicely designed by Matt Saunders), mom flips out and retreats to her bedroom.
Also part of this wobbly wedding party is Tendikayi’s younger sister Nyasha (Shyko Amos), a songwriter/feng shui consultant, just back from an African visit, who rightfully feels the family doesn’t take her seriously. Meanwhile, Marvelous’ stylish middle sister Margaret (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) deals with her own cultural and family conflicts and disappointments over multiple glasses of wine. (Think Claire in “A Delicate Balance.”)
In this house of powerful women, patriarch Donald (Harvy Blanks) takes a strategically passive role, disappearing into talk of squash, football or whiskey. Also on hand is Chris’ laid-back brother Brad (a delightful Joe Tippett), who is brought in as a wonky go-between in the ritual for the celibate Christian couple.
Each of these characters has enough backstory for a play of his or her own, but the multiple narratives only get stacked up, never coalescing into a thematic whole. And when a deep family secret is revealed, triggering questions of home and identity, you feel you’re in an entirely different play.
The performances are all over the map, too. As the matriarch, Ekulona goes archly grand, while Blanks takes a different tact and underplays. Scott and Boothe have moments of authenticity but they also get swept up in some broad playing. Amos and Tippett have a naturally tender scene together, as do Boothe and Marquand at their climactic moment.
Still, a sharpening of focus, a tightening of logic, a reined-in cast and a more consistent tone are all needed for “Familiar” to connect with audiences and find new stages. Creatives have time to do some of that work before the play’s spring 2016 run at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons.