POST: 'Familiar' - you can't erase your identity

What's it about?

Familiar tells the story of a Zimbabwe family that escaped war and came to the United States with their toddler daughter. Unfortunately the scars from that war permanently changed how they perceived their native land and how they live their newfound life in the U.S.

What'd I experience?

Times Square was very frigid and I happened to wear the wrong shoes (slip-ons) so by the time I got to the theater I had frostbite toes. Luckily, I knew where I was going because I had been there before. I was 30 minutes early and I had an edge seat, what more could I ask for! It was definitely a packed show, I mean every seat was full except the two seats next to me, which I gladly used as my bag and coat rack.

The stage appeared to be a two story home with great décor and intricate props (lasagna that looked fake but was actually real, since it was eaten by the actors). A familiar tune was playing in the background, African music that is played in my home from time to time. I was practically shaking my hips in the chair. Suddenly, a yell echoes on stage and Tamara Tunie appears, as the character Marvelous. My face was in shock and that smile on my face remained there for 5 minutes. She is, of course, from Law and Order: SVU and looked exactly as she does on television but this time I was just a few feet away from her.

Marvelous was not so marvelous, though. She was a strict Americanized mother and she was screaming at Donald, her easy/free/careless husband, over the dumbest things like not warning her that the football game was on. Marvelous and Donald came to the U.S. from Zimbabwe with a toddler in toe in the 1980's, escaping the war that was going on there. Soon they settled in rural Minnesota. Marvelous went back to school and became a bio-chemist, Donald started his own law firm, and their child Tendi followed in her father's footsteps and became a lawyer.

The oddball and black sheep of the family Niyasha was born after they arrived in the U.S. Niyasha was always scrutinized by her mother and outshined by Tendi. My brother can definitely relate since he is the only boy and he happens to be the lazy one amongst three driven younger sisters - my mom definitely has her hands full. Coming from a career-driven family, Niyasha ops for a different, singer/actress/feng shui guru - every little girls dream job.

It is not until Tendi is set to wed Chris (a white guy), that this dynamic family becomes a family full of lies and deceit. Marvelous has been doing all she can to erase her Zimbabwean identity - by refusing to speak shona (native language), not doing culture celebrations, and not talking about their family history. My mother is far from Marvelous. She is a professional in dragging my sisters and I to events (weddings, barbecues, birthdays, baby showers, etc) associated with people who are from where I am from. All in an attempt to expose me to my fellow "brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins" (they are not really related to me but in my culture we are all related). Though I dread it at times, I enjoy it because I get to discuss in my native language about school, nagging parents, career aspirations and more. I feel like Marvelous is just selfishly satisfying her needs and  depriving her children of their identity. 

If someone was to ask Tendi or Niyasha the meaning behind their names they would probably respond back its a Zimbabwean name, and that is it. I get many questions regarding the meaning behind my name and where it comes from and I gladly venture into the history of my name and how many people mispronounce it before they can finally pronounce it correctly. I do this because my name and where I come from is a big part of who I am and I will never deny that.

 When Marvelous' older sister, Anne, visits from Zimbabwe to attend Tendi's wedding there is a culture shock:  what her sister has done  and her drive to undo that. Anne wants to bring back some Zimbabwe traditions in Tendi's wedding and that does not go smoothly with Marvelous, even though Tendi and Chris are perfectly fine with it. Marvelous does not want her family to be thought of as less than Americans by her future in laws because they are from Africa. 

She tries hard to please Chris with fancy hors d'oeuvres, modest dressing, and high level vocabulary. I can definitely understand because my family is from Africa and whenever my heavily accented parents encounters others, those others tend to look down on them. My mother on the other hand quickly changes that by reminding them that she is a well-educated woman who chose to  live in a country she thought would be best to raise her children in. It's very easy for people to forget where they come from, especially if their parents are not willing to expose them to it. 

As Tendi's wedding quickly approached, Auntie Anne finds herself scrambling to find all that she needs to perform the Zimbabwe wedding traditions with little help from Marvelous. When an argument erupts between Anne and Marvelous, the whole family happens to be there and suddenly the unthinkable happens. The big secret that has been kept from Tendi and Niyasha and unspoken for years is revealed. Tendi is not really Tendi. Hidden secrets coming out when all the people you do not want to find out about it are suddenly together, shocker! 

Tendi was really the daughter of Marvelous' younger sister who died fighting the war and left behind a little girl, Petulance. But what drove Marvelous and Donald to adopt Petulance was the loss of their own daughter, the original Tendi. I'm sure the reason they took her in was not only because Petulance was parentless but because she resembled their daughter and adopting her would make it seem as though they never lost their daughter. Petulance, now Tendi, filled the void in their hearts. The sad thing about it was that Marvelous and Donald were never going tell Tendi and allow her to live a life without knowing the truth. I would prefer to know where I come from, not from the sky or god, but who really gave me life. I can imagine the pain and hurt she felt. 

Tendi was able to accept the wrong her parents did and put in the effort to explore her heritage. Marvelous accepted the career choices Niyasha pursued and Donald admitted that he would like to return to his native land that scarred him so long ago. One can never erase where they come from whether it is America or Africa, but if effort is put in doing so, there is meaning behind it. Horrible experiences pushes people to forget as much as possible and start new but overcoming it is best when you talk about it with those you love. Soon, those struggles will be behind you and fond memories will be built.You can't erase your identity, it is apart of you and it will always be apart of you, no matter how much you try. 


Want to see it?

$30 Under30 Rush

Playwrights Horizons
thru Apr. 10