Letter from Tim: Familiar
Danai Gurira first burst upon the scene in 2006 as co-creator and performer (with Nikkole Salter) of In the Continuum, a timely, intimate, and powerful AIDS play about two women on two continents, linked through illness, that went on to productions throughout the country and the world. Developed originally as a graduate thesis production at NYU, the play ran for months at the Perry Street Theatre before I felt called to attend, and when I did, I went as much to see the directorial work of Robert O’Hara, whom I was just getting to know as a playwright, as to see the play. And even though I loved the play, I found it impossible to separate the skill of the writing from the authentic full-throttle performances and the inspired thematic reach of its conceit. But it was impossible not to take note of Danai as a writer in the years that followed: first the brave and searing Eclipsed in 2009, heading now to Broadway in The Public Theater’s acclaimed new production; then her compelling 2012 historical drama about religion and colonialism, The Convert, that has enjoyed productions throughout the country.
Danai’s artistic trajectory joins her to an impressive list of performer-slash-writers who initially wrote work for themselves to perform, but whose scope has expanded to more traditional full-length plays and musicals. Lisa Kron, Eric Bogosian, Taylor Mac, David Greenspan, Kirsten Childs, and Bruce Norris come to mind. These artists often used their work to explore questions of identity and self-definition in relationship to the world. The directionality from inner to outer paves the way for the expansion of the work from solo to multi-character, self to world. Interestingly, Danai’s playwriting jumped quickly to larger-scale work, but knowing that she is a first-generation daughter of African immigrants informs our appreciation of her focus. In the Continuum, Eclipsed, and The Convert are all plays set in Africa. Taken together, one can’t help but feel Danai’s expansive vision, the complexity with which she renders the collision of historical/psychosexual/spiritual/personal forces in her work. When I expressed my regard for her to her agent, he arranged a meeting. What an amazing woman! Charismatic, articulate, brilliant, funny, a true force of nature. We offered her a commission and promised to keep a close watch on a new play she was writing for Yale Rep, Familiar, her first play set in America. As the play began to take shape, I recognized immediately what an important play it was for her, a play that wrestles directly with the questions of identity she writes so openly about in her Playwright’s Perspective. The explorations of Africanness that informed her previous work now rubbed up against her direct exploration of Americanness.
Tales of the immigrant experience are common in American literature, and Danai consciously embraces this genre through her title. Tonally, the play also seems to set us up for a family comedy, especially in the impending marriage of the eldest daughter that sets the action of the play in motion. But the play also defies our expectations in several regards. The Zimbabwean-born mother and father are both upper-middle-class professionals, so the play is not about economic struggle. And the gathering of the family for the wedding also brings out tensions between the pull of old world values and new world opportunities. Interestingly, the mother seems the most inured to old world customs while the youngest daughter is most drawn to her African heritage. The bride-to-be seems American through and through as a Christian and a lawyer. She’s even marrying a Caucasian Minnesotan. But she is also exceedingly solicitous of her visiting Zimbabwean aunt, who is inflexible in her adherence to traditional African customs. All of these forces give the play high-energy ebullience; but there is a surprise in store, a surprise that brings the two worlds of the play face to face. Danai navigates this climactic shift adeptly and passionately. In the end, the play both capitalizes upon and breaks free from its “familiarity.” Like all great writers, she shows us a world unique to itself but a world whose uniqueness ultimately provides the key to its universality.