Danai Gurira, Mapping Another Cultural Crossroads In ‘Familiar’
By Kirsten Bowen
A self-described “cultural schizophrenic,” playwright Danai Gurira has made a career of telling the stories of African women at various crossroads. Whether it’s Jekesai of The Convert, who takes on a new name and religion to escape an unwanted marriage, or the Chinrayamwiras of Familiar, who have created new lives in the U.S. but still feel the tug of their native Zimbabwe, the characters in Gurira’s plays struggle to reconcile opposing identities.
A born Midwesterner raised in Harare, Zimbabwe, Gurira knows the struggle of opposing identities firsthand. She began life in Iowa, where her father was a professor at Grinnell College. Like many other Zimbabweans at the time, the Guriras had come to the United States for education, but they returned to Zimbabwe in 1983, a few years after the country’s liberation from minority-white government.
Gurira developed a love for theatre as a young teen, creating socially conscious work with the Chipawo Performing Arts Workshop and performing in Western dramas in high school. She returned to the United States for higher education, majoring in social psychology at Macalester College in Minnesota. Then, on a study trip to South Africa, Gurira decided that her true calling was to tell the stories of African women, so she moved from a potential career in academia to enrolling at New York University, where she received her MFA in Acting under the renowned teacher and director (and Arena Stage founder) Zelda Fichandler.
At NYU, Gurira created In the Continuum, which she wrote and performed with fellow actor and playwright Nikkole Salter. The play tells the dual stories of two women, the Zimbabwean Abigail, a television broadcaster in Harare, and the American Nia, a teenager in Los Angeles. In the course of a single day, both women test positive for HIV and wrestle with shame, hypocrisy, and a lack of support in their respective cultures. Under the direction of Robert O’Hara, In the Continuum toured nationally and internationally, playing at Woolly Mammoth in 2006.
Gurira’s solo play Eclipsed premiered at Woolly in 2009 under the direction of Liesl Tommy. It depicts several young Liberian women held captive by a rebel army officer during that West African nation’s horrific civil war. The newest arrival, a teenager, is befriended and secretly trained by a female soldier to become a vicious fighter, channeling her rage at the loss of her family as well as her treatment as the war-wife of of the rebel officer. At the same time, a peace worker tries to convince her to lay down her arms and prepare for the armistice ahead. The teen’s identity becomes a dire choice between her survival and her humanity.
For 2012’s The Convert, directed by Michael John Garcés at Woolly in 2013, Gurira returned to Zimbabwe, but this time to the late 1890s, when the country is a British possession known as Southern Rhodesia. Christianity is sweeping the territory, offering a way for a young Shona-born woman, Jekesai, to escape an unwanted arranged marriage by becoming a servant in the household of Chilford Ndlovu, another convert. Under Chilford’s tutelage, Jekesai takes on a new identity and changes her name to Esther, but a series of tragic circumstances forces her to confront the inner conflict between her native culture and her new religion. Ultimately she is drawn back to her Shona roots, but at a devastating and bloody cost.
Familiar is Gurira’s first play set in the United States — and her first unabashed comedy — yet it continues and deepens her focus on cultural identities in collision. The story was inspired by a wedding in Gurira’s own family, in which a Zimbabwean cousin and fellow Midwesterner married a white American. Gurira was struck by the dynamics of the coming together of these two cultures, describing it in an interview with Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Tim Sanford as “a beautiful mess.”
The core cultural conflict in Familiar is not so much between the Zimbabwean-American Chinyaramwira family and their new son-in-law, but within their own family and its complicated feelings about Zimbabwe itself. Parents Donald and Marvelous came to the United States for an education and stayed, embracing a life as naturalized American citizens and raising their two English-only-speaking daughters, Tendi and Nyasha, both of whom are now expressing curiosity and appreciation for their heritage in new ways. The arrival of Marvelous’s older sister Annie, who has made a life primarily in Zimbabwe, throws the family into upheaval, as she brings with her not only ancient rituals but vivid reminders of the values and people they left behind.
At a time when the lives of many immigrants in the United States are precarious, Gurira shines an honest light on the true costs of assimilation and the sacrifices made when accepting a new life and culture. “How do you create a home in a world that’s new and unfamiliar?” Gurira has asked when describing the play. “Can you fully assimilate without your true home, whatever and wherever it may be, calling out inside you, ignored and yet insistent?” Each of the characters in Familiar struggles with this question of identity and assimilation in their own particular way.
From the streets of Harare to the living rooms of suburban Minnesota, Gurira continues in her career an ongoing project of lifting the voices of African women, personalizing and humanizing their stories against backdrops of historic change.
Describing her work to Sanford, she says “I think that’s a goal in all my plays, honestly, to get into the personal, but to have a macro ramification, or to look at things that people can look at as a statistic or stereotype in one way and to make them have to spend time with a person that they may even end up relating to a little in some strange, tiny way. To see the complexity of something they might have thought of as something simply statistical and ‘over there somewhere.’”
Kirsten Bowen is Literary Director at Woolly Mammoth and the production dramaturg for this staging of Familiar.