Yale Repertory Theatre

“Familiar,” the new world premiere play by Danai Gurira currently playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is a gorgeous, over-stuffed, provocative evening of theatre with a flawless cast. The action of the play concerns the impending marriage of a mixed race couple and the fall out of what happens when their cultures and families collide. But the playwright’s accomplishment is about much more than just the story of a potentially mismatched couple: she has brought her entire Zimbabwe culture onto the stage and her writing is extremely rich and filled with moments of both humor and sadness. Plus, the entire company of actors is uniformly splendid, with each performer bringing a unique character to life. “Familiar” can, at times, feel a little messy and almost takes on more subjects than it can handle, but when a play is this glorious, why complain? Make your way to “Familiar” at the Yale Repertory Theatre for a theatrical experience you are unlikely to forget.

When the play opens, it is on the beautiful set (designed by Matt Saunders) of a suburban home in Maine where the parents of the bride, Marvelous and Donald Chinyaramwira, are preparing for the rehearsal dinner of the marriage of their daughter Tendikayi to her fiancé Chris. Into this setting, though, come Tendikayi’s extended family and, most importantly, her Zimbabwe culture, as typified most prominently by her Aunt Annie. To reveal any more of this play would spoil the surprises that the playwright has in store for both her characters and the audience. Suffice it is to say, though, that the cast is entirely vivid and terrific.

Saidah Arrika Ekulona as the bride’s mother Marvelous, is quite wonderful, by turns imposing and warmhearted. Harvy Blanks is a joy as the bride’s father Donald and there is a running joke throughout the play between him and his wife about which painting should be hanging on their living room wall. The beautiful Cherise Boothe is all you could ask for in the role of the bride Tendikayi and, as Chris, Ross Marquand makes the ideal groom-to-be, suitably handsome and entirely open to his wife’s culture and customs. However, it is often the more comedic characters of the extended family that manage to steal focus.

As the bride’s younger sister Nyasha, Shyko Amos is a comic wonder and also brings plenty of heart to her role. Plus, her scenes with Chris’s boisterous brother Brad (the hilarious Joe Tippett) are truly a scream and not to be mentioned here. Rounding out the cast are Patrice Johnson Chevannes, extremely amusing as Aunt Margaret, and the formidable Kimberly Scott as Aunt Annie. As mentioned, it is Aunt Annie who truly brings the Zimbabwe culture and customs center stage and her dialogue can be quite provocative, with a spiky wit that takes no prisoners.

In “Familiar”, playwright Danai Gurira seems to straddle the line between the United States and Zimbabwe and she has woven an unforgettable group of characters and situations that could only have come from a writer who has been immersed in both cultures. Also, director Rebecca Taichman has done a superb job of juggling all the disparate people and scenes in “Familiar” and she has elicited fine performances right across the board, as well as working beautifully with her costume designer Toni-Leslie James and lighting designer Joey Moro.

So, can there be a New York future for “Familiar”? If so, some tightening of different scenes might be needed and there are some plot complications that are almost too much. Still, when seen as a whole, Danai Gurira’s “Familiar” is really quite wonderful and is one of the richest new plays I have seen in years. Indeed, I got so caught up in the various stories and relationships in “Familiar” that I truly didn’t want the show to end. And, I, for one, cannot wait to see what further plays the gloriously talented Danai Gurira will produce in the coming years.

“Familiar” continues performance at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT through February 21, 2015. For tickets, please visit www.yalerep.org or call the box office at (203) 432-1234.

by Zander Opper

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