Guthrie’s showing of Danai Gurira’s ‘Familiar’ gives black women authentic voice

"Familiar," Danai Gurira's latest play, is about a Zimbabwean-American family and the preparations for its oldest daughter's wedding to a white guy from Minnetonka.

Preview performances started this past weekend for Danai Gurira’s “Familiar,” a play that represents a rarity in American theatre, featuring five black women, and written by a black woman. Gurira is well known as an actress for her work in “The Walking Dead” and most recently in Marvel’s “Black Panther.” But she’s also an accomplished playwright and a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul.

Set in two cities, things get complicated when the daughter invites an aunt from Zimbabwe to perform a traditional ritual before the wedding, and the parents are forced to deal with realities they had left behind when they moved to the United States.

Austene Van, who plays a family member caught between two worlds, said the play is remarkable for more than the story being told on stage. She describes it as a hearty, meaty story that feels real and not some sketch of a woman as seen by someone who isn’t actually a black woman. She pointed out that these are not just black women, but specifically African women.

“Because we don’t often see that — we don’t get to hear it,” Van said. “I was thinking about how often we’re trained in certain dialects. Not one of them, in my lifetime, in my 40 years of theater, has been an African — any type of African — dialect.”

As with Shakespeare, audiences will want to give themselves a little time to adapt to the dialect, she said.

The play which will run through April 14 in Minneapolis stars Shá Cage who plays the part of Tendi, the young woman getting married, and Austene Van who plays Tendi’s Aunt Margaret, who lives in the United States but hasn’t managed to fully adapt to this new way of life.

Danai Gurira is one of a handful of black playwrights making strides in creating memorable roles for black actresses. Shá Cage said it’s still not enough.

“I think about all of the young black women that I mentor that are just waiting for a chance to step into a role like this and some of this material,” Cage said. “But there’s just not enough work!”

Cage said she commends the Guthrie for staging “Familiar.” And she hopes that the success of movies like “Black Panther” will encourage producers and theaters to support black women writers to create stories that feature more strong black women.

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