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Seattle Repertory Theatre

Familiar, a play by Zimbabwean American Danai Gurira—she is known for her role in The Walking Dead and, more recently, as the Wakanda warrior Okoye in Black Panther—has two white American characters: Chris and Brad. Chris is a Christian engaged to Tendikayi, a black African lawyer and the daughter of Donald Chinyaramwira (a successful black African Lawyer), and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (a black African geneticist). Brad is Chris's younger brother, and a slacker who was honorably discharged from the army. Chris and Tendikayi have imposed a conservative Christian morality on their relationship—no fucking until they're married. Brad, however, is, like Tendikayi's mother, Marvelous, not very religious. He is also attracted to, and majorly flirts with his future sister-in-law, Tendikayi's young and rebellious sister Nyasha. The sister's aunt Margaret Munyewa drinks like a Zimbabwean. A glass of red wine rarely leaves her hand during the play.

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Familiar, which is set in a posh part of Minneapolis, has almost no racial tension, and there is a good reason for this. Zimbabweans do not have the same history with white Americans that they do with white Europeans (or white Africans).

White Americans are not seen as totally unproblematic by Zimbabweans, who, during the struggle for liberation, often borrowed language, styles, and tactics from the black American experience of racism. But American racial oppression, as with post-colonial economic exploitation by multi-national corporations owned by white Americans, was never as direct as that of white European settlers, who called blacks kaffirs (white African for nigger) to their faces, and forced them off the most productive land and into barren locations or crowded tenements. The memory of the humiliation Africans endured while whites were in power (white-only hospitals, swimming pools, schools, and so on) is so vivid that it would be impossible for a play concerning the marriage between a white African and black African not to be explosive, not to open wounds, not to revive bitter feelings.

If the white characters in Familiar (and the white Americans who watch the play—its remaining shows are this weekend) think that black Africans are much less angry than black Americans and get along better with whites, they are mistaken. Black Africans have the same bad and bitter racial memories as black Americans—and in the play they are expressed by Mai Carol, Marvelous’s eldest and less polished sister—but these feelings have slightly different triggers. Whites in America are simply not the same for them as whites in Africa. This difference makes a difference.

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