Reading the script of Danai Gurira's play Familiar, currently playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre, was an unsettling experience for me. Gurira, a playwright and actor—she is known for her role in The Walking Dead and, more recently, as the Wakanda warrior Okoye in Black Panther—was raised in virtually the same world that I was. And there are not many people I know who have been raised in this context (Zimbabwean American).
Gurira has written four plays, the most noted of which is the 2015 hit Eclipsed. It won several awards, and both its off-Broadway and Broadway runs starred another famous African actor, Lupita Nyong'o.
Gurira's play Familiar, which had its premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015, is about an upper-middle-class Zimbabwean family, the Chinyaramwiras, living in Minneapolis. That the play makes it clear that the family is of that distinction exposes the British influence on Gurira's imagination. Zimbabwe was once a colony of the most powerful empire of the 19th century, the United Kingdom. A lot of that culture, and particularly its obsession with class position, was readily adopted by its colonial subjects.
In America, you would describe the Chinyaramwiras as middle-class. But if a major part of the way you see the world is British, you have to note that they are upper-middle-class. The mother of the house, Marvelous Chinyaramwira, is a biochemist, and the father, Donald Chinyaramwira, is a partner in a successful law firm. All of their children have attended good schools and achieved advanced degrees. This is my milieu.
Reading the play was like reading the precise components not only of my thoughts but also my mode of English. It contains a level of Shona (the language of black Zimbabwe) that I understand. The depths of Shona are, however, distant and unknown to me, but I'm very familiar with its shallow parts—words like "chete" ("only") or "makadini" ("how are you") or "ndiripo" ("I'm well") or "makorokoto" ("congratulations"). Gurira's play is filled with this kind of shallow Shona.
It also has an English that's in part syntactically Shonaized ("Sisi, you are here and that is what it is"), in part old-school British ("my dear"), in part American. And the American part is composed of black English ("up in here") and white English ("dude, what's going on?"). There are even examples of what Zimbabweans call "voco," a love for big English words ("I am going to eviscerate you in that chess game").
There are sequences in the play that are obviously funny, but others that are funny only if you understand all the levels of English that are in play. In one scene, Marvelous, the mother of the house, is talking like black Zimbabweans talk to other black Zimbabweans (a mad mix of English and Shona), when a white man (her daughter's fiancé) walks into the living room. When she realizes he is behind her, she stops her Shona/English and talks to him like a white American. The shift is funny not only because of its speed, but also because it reveals how Marvelous, how my people, have survived in this strange, strange land.