The cast of “Familiar” at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago
Photo: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

An elegantly appointed middle class living room in Minnesota, punctuated with poinsettias and a wreath to celebrate the holidays—plus the rare (and oft-disappearing) piece of African art. Frankly, it could’ve been my childhood home in the same Midwestern state, but instead, it is the setting of Danai Gurira’s Familiar, an emotional family dramedy that explores the impact and importance of identity, now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, Il.

The plot centers around the Chinyaramwira clan, a family of Zimbabwean origin whose immigration to the United States was fraught with turmoil, secrets and separation as the country formerly known as Rhodesia fought for its liberation. As the family prepares for the marriage of its eldest daughter, revelations about culture, allegiance, tradition, religion, ancestry and assimilation rise to the surface, threatening to destroy already fragile familial ties from the inside out.

“The Chinyaramwira’s past walks alongside each of them in different ways as they struggle, like any family, to hold together their individual ideas of what belonging to something really means,” wrote Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director, Anna Shapiro, in the production’s playbill. “What Danai understands (and shares) so beautifully is how what once kept us alive can so quickly become our prison and that, in a family, one cannot go where others won’t follow.”

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The play is the latest by Gurira, who is better known for her scene-stealing roles in Black Panther and Walking Dead. Also an accomplished playwright, her critically-acclaimed In the Continuum won an Obie award, followed by a Best Play Tony nomination for her follow-up, Eclipsed (both won Helen Hayes awards). Her third, The Convert, won six Ovation awards. She is currently adapting Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah into a much-anticipated miniseries, with friend and co-star Lupita Nyong’o expected to produce and star alongside actor David Oyelowo.

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For Familiar, Gurira reportedly drew on the experiences of friends and family—and no doubt her own experiences as a first-generation Zimbabwean American, as well as her years attending Macalaster College in St. Paul, Mn.

As a black girl who came of age in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, I could tell you much about being African American in a predominantly white Midwestern community. Gurira’s exploration of what it means to be African and American is at turns hilarious, gripping, deeply moving, and incredibly insightful. But though it is an immigrants’ story, it is also universally relatable, as Gurira deftly weaves humor and tragedy to offer up a reckoning and reconciliation that is indeed familiar to those of us with—well, families.

“Familiar, a celebration at its core, invites us all to peer inside an African home in America. It also seeks to evoke a healing of the pains and wounds that plague most families,” Gurira said, in a release issued by Steppenwolf.

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(l-r) Celeste M. Cooper, Danai Gurira and Cheryl Bruce
Photo: Kyle Flubacker (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Now approaching its 45th year, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company recently honored Gurira at their 10th Anniversary Women in the Arts luncheon in Chicago on December 10. Gurira joined cast members from the production, including Steppenwolf Ensemble member Celeste M. Cooper, who plays the Chinyaramwira’s youngest daughter, Nyasha, in this well-cast and evenly acted production. In an interview published by the company, Cooper spoke about the play’s impact.

“These are some strong, powerful and super complex characters much like my own family members,” she said. “Although there is lots of drama in this story, there is also a lot of love ... This is such a human story. Danai did such an excellent job writing three dimensional characters that I don’t think you can just identify with only one of them.”

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And as many of us prepare to reunite with our families this holiday season, there was a palpable sense of intimacy and empathy in the audience, as the lights went down on Familiar.

Because maybe you really can go home again.

Familiar is in production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in though January 13, 2019. You can buy tickets here.