As Cultures Merge, Hope Blooms in Old Globe’s ‘Familiar’

  Families coping with culture change in a new world make fertile soil for stage plays, especially in the USA, where nearly everybody has a migration in their not-so-distant past.

Older generations wrestle with issues of heritage versus survival while youngsters seek a balance between parents and peers. Conflicts force compromises. No one answers fits all.  Lots of juicy stories to tell.

The Old Globe Theatre is perennially curious about this genre. In recent seasons, we’ve watched the evolution of families from Mexico, the Mid-East, Japan, India and others wrestling with assimilation, usually with promising results.

Now Danai Gurira is here with Familiar, her report from Minnesota of a wedding between an assimilating bride from Zimbabwe and a very white Midwest groom.

The play is a load, but for all the right reasons. There aren’t many domestic comedy set-ups (well, a few) but there’s plenty of deep-textured, deadly sincere, hard-won hope.

The bride’s family is overabundantly accomplished: Father is a partner in a law firm, mother is a PhD research microbiologist, the tipsy aunt is a PhD geologist, the bride is an upwardly-mobile attorney and even the free-spirited little sister has talent still to mine. Their comfortable home looks like a middle-class fantasy of decorator touches.

Anthony Comis, Lucas Hall, Ramona Keller and Wandachristine, left to right, in Familiar at the Old Globe Theatre. J.T. MacMillan Photos

     What guy deserves all this? He’s cute in nerdy style and warmly generous in manner. He runs a non-profit that administers to needs in Africa, for which he has major reverence. And the couple obviously adore each other, sharing as they do a serious, really committed dedication to a very proper Jesus Christ. All the arrangements are in place for a joining of kindred spirits with little room for outside influences such as the Lutheran faith of the household or, ahem, anything having to do with, like, Africa.

Except the bride has been thinking about that distant past. The one that her younger sister rediscovered on a recent trip. The one her mother avoids discussing. And the bride has decided to bring in for the wedding her Zimbabwean aunt, the eldest sister of the two PhDs, for some real African flavor including perhaps even a roora, the ceremony in which the groom begs for the bride and pays the price in cows and chickens.

OK, this is the set-up for the comedy cultural clash, right? Except the eldest aunt sees nothing funny. Nor do her sisters. There’s a wide gap in the family, loaded with old and festering damage. And the time suddenly arrives for the settling of old scores and the revelations of suppressed truths.

The author is extravagantly confident in her ability to wrench reality into a nurturing optimism. Speeches tumble over each other. Much remains unsaid and much of what is spoken in ancestral language remains untranslated. It’s a play that not only rewards close attention but actually requires it. There are few easy fixes but lots of refreshing encouragement bubbling along through the conflict.

Director Edward Torres takes the high-energy plunge from the very outset, leaving himself little room for tempo variations. But this suits Gurira’s pace neatly and the whole show fairly gallops. There’s even a first-act curtain of memorable impact. And when gentle sweetness finally gets its turn, both director and author are ready.

Cherene Snow and Danny Johnson in Familiar at The Old Globe.

     There are some roles written better than others and some actors who adjust more smoothly. As the sister from Africa, the mono-named Wandachristine is a force of nature loosed after long brooding and undismayed at the magnitude of misunderstanding she must navigate but Cherene Snow as the Mom is hung with too much ethnic scarring and steely drive while Ramona Keller must labor along under the burden of exposition.

    Danny Johnson wears wisdom and appreciating respect well as the father. Olivia Washington as the kid sister and Zakiya Young as the bride are comfortably charming in less complicated roles, ready with bite when needed.

The white guys are hard to resist, Lucas Hall as the respectful and enthusiastic groom and Anthony Comis as the younger brother in his shadow, a slow-to-mature but resilient dark horse in the status stakes.

Walt Spangler devised the two-story interior that doesn’t quite look like Ozzie and Harriet’s somehow, with Jason Lyons’ lighting design always lurking for emphasis ops. The Alejo Vietti costumes are as expected, highlighted by the really gorgeous Africa outfit on the visiting sister.

I’m definitely ready to see more from this author, though I think she probably has mined the domestic heritage vein sufficiently. What I hope for is more of her muscular, assertive, confident insights on where the world is headed in its pursuit of diversity.

(Continues in the Old Globe Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 3, 2019.)



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