Preview: Danai Gurira Brings Familiar To Seattle Rep

Familiar by Danai Gurira at Seattle Rep (photo by Navid Baraty)

What do Minnesota, Seattle, and Zimbabwe have in common? Playwright Danai Gurira.  

Her play Familiar explores family dynamics, assimilation versus cultural heritage, and the joy and pain of immigration. Produced in association with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Familiar runs April 27th through May 27th at Seattle Repertory Theatre.  

Playwright Gurira’s day job of acting has already earned her a legion of fans. She plays the katana-wielding Michonne, in The Walking Dead, and Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje (“adored ones”), the fictional female warriors in the superhero-blockbuster film, Black Panther.  

Directed by Egyptian-American Taibi Magar, who said of the play, “Familiar is familiar because it is the story of American immigrants. Complicated and beautiful and… worth fighting for.” She has a unique perceptive: Her own father fled Egypt as a teen when his father was imprisoned in a labor camp.  

“Familiar” speaks to our time; immigration is a controversial issue. Inspired by her own immigrant family, Gurira adds new insight to that experience with humor and heart, laughter and tears, culture clashes and fierce family fights. Sibling rivalry also comes into play, as do idealism and the search for a sense of belonging. 

Set in an upscale Minneapolis suburban home, Familiar revolves around a boisterous Zimbabwean-American family preparing for their successful lawyer/daughter Tendi’s wedding to a kind, white Minnesotan.  

Immigrants Marvelous and Donald Chinyamurindi have built their American dream in Minnesota. Marvelous is a successful biochemist, and Donald, a partner in a prestigious law firm. Tendi’s younger sister, Nyasha, an aspiring musician, has just returned from a trip to the homeland. Her mother’s two sisters have also arrived for the wedding. Aunt Margaret, a geology professor in the US, always has a drink in her hand. But it is Aunt Anne, still living in Zimbabwe, who sparks the ensuing familial fireworks. And the arrival of her fiancé’s younger, irresponsible brother Brad further complicates the situation. 

The cast of "Familiar" by Danai Gurira, directed by Taibi Magar at Seattle Repertory Theatre. (Photo by Navid Baraty.)

The cast of “Familiar” by Danai Gurira, directed by Taibi Magar at Seattle Repertory Theatre. (Photo by Navid Baraty)

Out of respect for Tendi’s African heritage, the engaged couple asks Anne to lead a traditional roora wedding ceremony. [“Roora” is a “bride-price” or “dowry.”] Tendi’s father has warm feelings about his native country, but her mother strongly objects to the ritual, preferring to forget the customs and memories of her homeland. 

For Gurira, immigrant stories are not often told very deeply or even at all. Familiar may center on a specific immigrant family, but it is a universal story. Her play not only deals with imperative topics, such as identity and assimilation, she says, but it also examines how families keep things from one another, either to protect their family members or to avoid dealing with their pain. 

Gurira was born in Grinnell, Iowa, to Josephine and Roger Gurira, who were from Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). Her father was then teaching Chemistry at Grinnell College. When she was five, the family moved back to Zimbabwe, living in the capital Harare. Gurira later returned to the U.S., and studied social psychology at Macalester College, and received an MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts 

Although this play received critical acclaim, its significance goes beyond that. Familiar contains five black female characters and is written by a black woman, which is unfortunately uncommon in American theater.  

In 2016, Gurira made theatre history on Broadway. Her Tony-nominated play, Eclipsed, was the first time a Broadway play has been written and directed by and cast entirely with women. As one reviewer noted, “That these are black women makes this milestone even more remarkable.” 

The Guthrie Theater cast of Familiar reprise their roles at Seattle Rep. Six of the actors are making their Seattle Rep debuts: Harvy Blanks as Donald, Shá Cage as Nyasha, Perri Gaffney as Marvelous, Wandachristine as Anne, Austene Van as Margaret, and Michael Wieseras Brad. Audiences may remember Quinn Franzen, who plays Chris and Aishé Keita who portrays Nyasha, from their performances in various Seattle productions.  

BTW, Danai means “loving each other” in Shona, the most widely spoken Bantu language native to the Shona people of Zimbabwe.  

Check out other performances at Seattle Rep this season here.

Familiar runs Tuesday-Sunday, through May 27, 2018, in the Bagley Wright Theatre at Seattle Repertory Theatre; tickets start at $17; Seattle Repertory Theatre Box Office at 206.443.2222 or toll-free at 877.900.9285, or go online at seattlerep.org; discounted tickets for groups of 10+ may be purchased by calling 206-443-2224.

The Cast  
Harvy Blanks (Donald)
Shá Cage (Nyasha
Perri Gaffney (Marvelous)
Wandachristine (Anne)
Austene Van (Margaret
Michael Wieser(Brad)
Quinn Franzen (Chris)
Aishé Keita (Nyasha) 

The Creative Team 
Danai Gurira (Playwright)
Taibi Magar (Director), 
Adam Rigg (Scenic Designer)
Karen Perry (Costume Designer)
Tom Mays (Lighting and Projection Designer)
Scott W. Edwards (Sound Designer)
Carla Steen (Dramaturg)
Lucinda Holshue (Vocal Coach)

Danai Gurira (Playwright)
I
s an award-winning playwright and actor. She currently plays Michonne on AMC’s critically-acclaimed original series The Walking Dead and stars in the recently released film Black Panther. As a playwright, her works include Broadway’s Eclipsed (NAACP Award; Helen Hayes Award: Best New Play; Connecticut Critics Circle Award: Outstanding Production of a Play), In the Continuum (Obie Award, Outer Critics Award, Helen Hayes Award), and The Convert (six Ovation Awards, Los Angeles Outer Critics Award). Danai’s newest play Familiar received its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre (Yale Rep) in 2015 and premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in February 2016. She is a recipient of the Whiting Award, a Hodder Fellow, and has been commissioned by Yale Rep, Center Theatre Group, Playwrights Horizons and the Royal Court. 

Taibi Magar (Director)
I
s an Egyptian-American director based in New York and a graduate of the Brown/Trinity MFA program. In New York, Taibi has directed and developed work for Ars Nova (Underground Railroad Game, NYT Critics Pick, TONY Critics Pick), The Foundry, TFANA, and the Women’s Project Theatre. She is the recipient of a Stephen Sondheim Fellowship, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival Fellowship, a Public Theater Shakespeare Fellowship, the TFANA Actors and Director Project Fellowship and is an alumnus of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab. Regionally, she has directed and developed work at the Alley Theatre, Trinity Repertory Company, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare & Company and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and has directed for many academic institutions including The Juilliard School, Fordham University and New York University. 

 

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About Starla Smith

Starla Smith is a career journalist, writing features for such publications as The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily News, The Des Moines Register, Vibe and a prize-winning Gannett Newspaper. She helped launch Theater Week Magazine and eventually became its publisher. As a regular contributor to Playbill, her interviews and photos were featured in Playbill and Playbill-on-line. Smith was featured in the New York Times "Style" section for her "Word Portraits," specialized tributes, speeches, and presentation profiles. And she covered theater and features for City Search, Digital City, and the Tena Duberry WOW! Radio show. She previously served as astrology guru for Out Magazine, and she hastens to assure her readers that "Starla" is indeed her real name.

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