Review: ‘Black Panther’ star and playwright Danai Gurira’s family saga ‘Familiar’ sparkles with wit, heart at the Old Globe
When a play levitates to the kind of what-just-happened comic climax that “Familiar” reaches at the Old Globe — a blindside hit of whacked-out bravura — there’s really only one thing to do:
Come back for the second act, too.
The scene that closes the first half of Danai Gurira’s whip-smart and extravagantly entertaining family saga might be the most rousing, send-’em-off-smiling pivot to intermission that I’ve seen in ages, but there’s plenty more where that came from in Act 2 — not to mention a whole lot of laughs, suspense and thoughtful provocation leading up to it.
You might know Gurira best as the proud Wakandan warrior Okoye from the Oscar-nominated 2018 movie “Black Panther”; or maybe as the equally fierce survivor Michonne in the AMC-TV zombie series “The Walking Dead.”
But she’s also a gifted playwright whose raw drama “Eclipsed” landed on Broadway in 2016 and earned her a Tony Award nomination.
“Familiar,” which had an off-Broadway run the same year, dovetails with Gurira’s own history as the daughter of immigrants from Zimbabwe, the southern African country that has endured political and economic strife since its emancipation from white-minority rule in 1980.
In the play, the melodiously named Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Cherene Snow) and her husband, Donald (Danny Johnson) are the prosperous, Zimbabwe-born parents of Minnesota-raised daughters Tendikayi (Zakiya Young) and Nyasha (Olivia Washington).
The family homestead is a big, airy suburban split-level designed in fine style for the Globe by Walt Spangler; wan, wintry sunshine peeks through windows in Jason Lyons’ full-bodied lighting scheme.
It’s clear very quickly that Marvelous is a demanding, occasionally harsh matriarch, but affectionate as well, in Snow’s admirably layered portrayal. She’s also self-consciously Americanized: There’s a whole story in the plummy, luxuriously sustained “Hellooooo” with which she answers a call from a future in-law, her voice still carrying traces of Marvelous’ native language, Shona.
The accents sound natural all around, a tribute to the work of dialect coach Nathan C. Crocker, although passages of dialogue prove hard to hear now and then.
There’s a simple, big-picture appeal to this exquisitely acted show, directed by Globe returnee Edward Torres with a mastery of its shifting tones. It’s hard to go wrong with an absorbing story told by beautiful people, and an early scene of the family breaking spontaneously into traditional dancing and song at the arrival of bride-to-be Tendi radiates pure joy.
But look more closely — as Gurira compels us to do — and wow, do the fractures run deep.
Tendi — a serious-minded, 34-year-old lawyer and (in Young’s strong portrayal) very much her mother’s daughter — is about to marry the earnest local boy Chris (Lucas Hall, low-key and charming). Which is fine. Except the couple has decided they want to bring in elements of the traditional Roora ceremony — an idea introduced by the just-arrived Zimbabwean aunt Anne (although we gradually learn there’s much, much more to this development).
That is not fine, at least according to Marvelous, who pointedly says to Anne (played with sharp-tongued passion by the single-named Wandachristine): “You want this little white boy from Minnetonka to bring us some cows?”
Meanwhile, the pair’s other sister, Margaret — portrayed with gently cynical good humor by Ramona Keller — tries her best to keep the peace, as does dad Donald, whom Johnson lends a winning mix of concern and exasperation.
As much as Marvelous wants to forget the old country, younger daughter Nyasha — who’s fresh off a trip to Zimbabwe — yearns to embrace it. She becomes in some ways the fulcrum of the deepening family conflict (which involves revelations of brutal heartache), and Washington plays this free-spirited artist with endlessly appealing zip and wit.
She also gets the flat-out funniest scene, as Chris’ goofy but well-meaning brother Brad (comic ace Anthony Comis)— who has gamely agreed to a role in the nuptials — embarks on a bonkers “rescue” attempt that has to be seen to be appreciated.
But it’s the way Washington performs a wistfully pretty little song called “Familiar” on a traditional drum that ultimately captures the tenderness and quiet resolve at the heart of this sprawling show; and for anyone with a family, the feels here (as Nyasha might say) will likely be very real. Familiar, too.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Check with theater for exceptions.) Through March 3.
Where: Old Globe Theatre’s Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
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