It’s the trickiest sort of stage navigation — going from broad, side-splitting comedy to sensitive drama that tugs at the tear ducts. And it’s a feat accomplished with style by the nimble cast and artful director of “Familiar,” the play by Danai Gurira that had its regional premiere Friday at the Guthrie Theater.
“Familiar” plumbs issues of immigration and acculturation around a family of expatriates from Zimbabwe — terrain that Gurira (currently onscreen in the megahit “Black Panther”) knows well as the Macalester-educated daughter of two Zimbabwean professionals.
The action is set in the stately Minnetonka home of Marvelous Chinyamurindi (Perri Gaffney) and Donald Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks), a biochemist and lawyer, respectively. Their daughter, lawyer Tendi (Shá Cage), is about to marry Chris (Quinn Franzen), a dutiful, good-hearted white fellow who runs a nonprofit. They met at church and have taken a vow of abstinence until marriage, a set-up for some over-the-top humor later.
When we meet Donald, he’s tiptoeing around the house to put a map of Zimbabwe over the mantel. But Marvelous pooh-poohs the idea. She wants no overt reminders of the past in her impeccably bland home.
This tenuous connection to her culture is also reflected in Tendi’s bridal party, which does not include her little sister. But things come to a head when her aunt Anne (Wandachristine) flies into town in all her gorgeous regalia (Karen Perry designed the costumes), determined to have a wedding in the custom of Zimbabwe’s Shona people. Anne intends to lead the ceremony of roora, in which the groom’s family pays a bride price, often denominated in cattle.
Rounding out the cast are Marvelous’ other sibling Margaret, a geology professor (Austene Van, steady, stylish and on point); Tendi’s much-ignored sister Nyasha (graceful Aishé Keita), a feng shui artist and aspiring songwriter who pads around all day in her pajamas; and Chris’ feckless younger brother, Brad (fluid physical comedian and skilled show-stealer Michael Wieser).
Director Taibi Magar’s production is uproariously funny. In fact, it starts out so broadly, it suggests the old TV sitcom “The Jeffersons.” But the play shifts moods deftly as it carries us through a series of secrets and revelations. “Familiar” has been criticized as overstuffed, but Magar’s excellently acted staging breezes through all its changes.
Expertly and subtly, Gaffney helps us understand how Marvelous arrived at her commanding persona. It’s less a front than a coping mechanism. As her husband, Blanks gives us a character who works his will through wiles and wits. Together, they make an unexpected couple from a part of the world often associated with starchy patriarchy.
Wandachristine is marvelous as Aunt Anne, who may be culturally anchored but also possesses a wicked sense of humor. Cage and Franzen have an easy chemistry that heightens their comedy and brings poignancy to their quieter moments.
“Familiar” lands at a time when immigration is a hotly contested subject. Playwright Gurira adds new colors and perspectives to that discussion, offering up a spirited family that mixes faith, music and love in a prairie haven called Minnesota.
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