To assimilate or not to assimilate, that is the issue in Familiar, which plays at The Old Globe through March 3, 2019.
This mixed cocktail of comedic cultural exchanges was written by Danai Gurira, who also moonlights as General Okoye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther and Avengers Infinity War. Gurira was born in Iowa, but her parents immigrated from South Rhodesia, currently Zimbabwe, in 1964.
The family in Familiar shares a few qualities with Gurira’s. For example, the parents in Familiar are professionals who have immigrated to Minnesota from Zimbabwe.
Their oldest daughter, Tendi, is getting married to a “white boy," Chris. However, Tendi's younger sister has just returned from Zimbabwe, and Tendi wants to have a traditional Zimbabwean wedding. Her parents, the immigrants from Zimbabwe, do not want Tendi to have a traditional Zimbabwean wedding.
Coming to Tendi’s aid is her maternal aunt Anne, directly from Zimbabwe. Aunt Anne will be performing a traditional “bride price” ceremony. The mother of the bride calls that a “non-starter” and the story goes from there.
This isn’t a new story, but the condensing of the generations makes for ample comedic moments. Typically, the successful immigrant story in the United States is a three-generation affair. The initial immigrant family has nothing and works day and night for little money. The next generation takes the foundation of that work and becomes successful, but still has an immigrant mentality.
It is the third generation which ends up living what Philip Roth called the American Pastoral in his book of the same title. This third generation goes to the best schools and makes a pilgrimage to the homeland to reconnect with their now distant heritage.
Condensing the generational progression of an immigrant family is an excellent way to ramp up the stakes in a story. The Godfather comes to mind. Michael Corleone feels more like Vito’s grandson than the youngest brother, but two generations is easier to coordinate than three. In Familiar, Aunt Anne feels more like the grandmother of the bride, as opposed to an merely an aunt.
Gurira keeps the focus of her play firmly on the immigrant dynamics and avoids the quagmire of Zimbabwe’s political present and past. The story isn’t about Zimbabwe; it is about America and how a family navigates the tension between cultures with conflicting ideologies.