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Off Broadway Review: Danai Gurira’s ‘Familiar’

Ito Aghayere, Joby Earls, Melanie Nicholls-King, Roslyn Ruff, Harold Surratt, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Joe Tippett, Tamara Tunie.

The new play by “Eclipsed” writer and “Walking Dead” star Danai Gurira, “Familiar,” is indeed on common turf — in the bosom of a loving family that grows fractious when the extended clan comes together to observe an important occasion. The big event here is the marriage of Tendi (Roslyn Ruff), the elder daughter of Donald (Harold Surratt), a semi-retired lawyer, and his overbearing biochemist wife, Marvelous (Tamara Tunie). But the members of this solidly upper-middle-class family are emigres from Zimbabwe, and how often do we get to see them on the stage?

Marvelous thought she had everything under control for her religious daughter’s “all-Christianized” wedding to Chris (Joby Earle), a nice white boy who works for the non-profit human rights organization he co-founded. But someone in the family slipped Auntie Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor) the plane fare from their native Zimbabwe, and this force of nature arrives in full African regalia, determined to preside over a traditional Zimbabwean wedding ceremony.

Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), the artistic younger daughter, is a kindred sister to Beneatha Younger, the artistic daughter who discovers her African roots in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Having just returned from her first visit to Africa, Nyasha is bursting with creative inspiration for her own songwriting. And unlike her mother, who insists on a wedding ceremony that is “classy, civilized, and modern,” she’s open-minded about the traditional rites that Auntie Anne is injecting into the proceedings.

Once the entire family is gathered in the comfortably tasteful (and thoroughly westernized) living room designed by Clint Ramos, all these conflicting beliefs about Western values and African traditions are bouncing off the walls. Although Rebecca Taichman has directed her superb ensemble cast to find the humor in these all-too-human disputes, the darker aspects of their conflicting values are clear enough, too.

Sorry to say, the warm feelings generated by this open-hearted play turn cold in the second act. Seemingly unsure of where to go with all the plot possibilities she raises, Gurira makes the worst possible choice of darkening the narrative by revealing unbelievable and out-of-character family secrets. Considering the abrupt changes she has to put Marvelous through, Tunie’s performance is all the more impressive. Some stage characters — and the actors who play them — are so vivid they can survive whatever absurdities the plot throws at them.

Off Broadway Review: Danai Gurira's 'Familiar'

Playwrights Horizons; 198 seats; $95 top. Opened March 3, 2016. Reviewed March 2. Running time: TWO HOURS, 10 MIN.

Production: A Playwrights Horizons production of a play in two acts, commissioned and originally produced by Yale Repertory Theater, by Danai Gurira.

Creative: Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Set, Clint Ramos; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Darron L. West; hair & wigs, Cookie Jordan; production stage manager, Cole P. Bonenberger.

Cast: Ito Aghayere, Joby Earls, Melanie Nicholls-King, Roslyn Ruff, Harold Surratt, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Joe Tippett, Tamara Tunie.

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