There is no curtain when you enter the theater for Danai Gurira’s “Familiar” at Playwrights Horizons. And so you get a good look, as you wait for the play to start, at its fully illuminated set, an idealized, cathedral-ceilinged suburban living space with smooth cream walls, dark-wood detailing and a towering bookcase. You know the play is about the Chinyaramwiras, an African-American family, and set outside Minneapolis, but this could easily be Scarsdale or Shaker Heights: The prints and watercolors on the walls are Asian-accented botanicals, the dining table is overflowing with desserts, and the small array of African sculptures on the mantel would fit in fine alongside the Jewish Museum catalogs and Ken Burns coffee-table books of any Manhattan Upper West Sider.
This home, created by the set designer Clint Ramos, is the perfect encapsulation of the play’s first act: that this is a family, an ambitious family — Zimbabwean immigrants, a lawyer and a neurochemist with American-born children — determined to belong.
Gurira’s funny and moving play, comfortably directed by Rebecca Taichman, is about how to balance tradition and assimilation; it’s about how to love parents, who tried to do their best for you in impossible circumstances. It is set in the African diaspora and is superficially about problems unique to that world, but its message is universal, and its milieu, despite its African-émigré specificity, is deeply, well, familiar.
Unlike Jewish Americans, this African-American family can’t pass, but they can try their damnedest to fit in. In her determination that they do so, the mom, named Marvelous (Tamara Tunie), has been an overbearing nag to her adult daughters. Tendi (Roslyn Ruff), the dutiful one, is a young partner at Dad’s law firm and about to get married; the other, Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), is more rebellious, a singer-songwriter and “feng shui consultant” in New York just back from, and inspired by, a visit to what they all call “Zim.” The dad, Donald (Harold Surratt), tries to stay out of it all, watching football and Rachel Maddow.
U.S. politics don’t intrude into “Familiar,” but you could make the argument, in our refugee-crisis, build-a-wall moment, that the play makes clear just how similar all immigrant families are, or at least all educated, aspirational immigrant families.
Nyasha’s rapture with Zim is recognizable to anyone who’s had a younger sibling recently returned from Birthright, and Donald’s with Maddow to anyone whose father leans more to J Street than to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Marvelous is a classic Jewish mother, always pushing food and criticism. Tendi marrying outside the community — in this case, to a white man — is a problem ignored, but the fact that she has left the family’s church for a more charismatic one is an issue. “Why she didn’t stay at United Lutheran, where she was raised, I’ll never know,” Marvelous kvetches, and she might as well be talking about a ba’al teshuvah child, meaning one who went from being a secular Jew to being a religious Jew.
Even the arrival of the aunt from the old country — Auntie Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor), with her frumpy clothes, antiquated values and uncouth manner — brings a recognizable range of reactions: Marvelous’s disgust, Tendi’s respect, Nyasha’s thrall.
But Anne’s entrance is also the point when Africa explicitly enters the play. Tendi and her fiancé, Chris (Joby Earle), have asked Anne to conduct a roora, a traditional Zimbabwean ceremony blessing the wedding. The kids expect it to be a quick ketuba signing on their way to the rehearsal dinner. Auntie Anne sees it as much more.
Gurira has the unusual distinction of having two plays open as major New York productions within days of each other: this, one off-Broadway, followed three days later by the acclaimed “Eclipsed,” on Broadway at the Golden Theatre. “Eclipsed” is set in Liberia, during the civil wars. With an all-female cast it examines the sexual slavery that went on there. Gurira was born in the American Midwest and grew up in Zimbabwe; she straddles the worlds. “Eclipsed” is set firmly in Africa, but the United States slips in, mostly through the recurring motif that the women are learning to read by poring over Bill Clinton’s memoir — and are sad to learn he’s no longer the Big Man. “Familiar” is a play about Americans, with Africa as its dramatic impetus — if, again, a familiar one.
Because, as it turns out, Auntie Anne brings not just the old country, but also some old grudges and old secrets. While the play’s second act, with its focus on African traditions and Zimbabwe’s battle for independence, seems more distant from our experience, its most shocking revelation is a long-buried family truth. It becomes almost reminiscent of Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” — set among WASPs in Palm Springs, California, to be sure, but a very Jewish play, with half-Jewish characters. Both plays hinge on a hidden, horrifying, tragic act of love that, in its discovery, is also seen as a betrayal. Baitz’s springs from the tumult of the American 1960s, Gurira’s from the tumult of the Zimbabwean 1970s.
In 2010s Minneapolis, though, those uncovered truths eventually serve to bring the Chinyaramwira family closer together. And if Gurira’s play has slightly pat ending, it’s also a sweet, emotionally rich one, found in a universal truth: At the base of “Familiar,” after all, is family.
Jesse Oxfeld has written about theater for Entertainment Weekly and for The New York Observer. Twitter @joxfeld