Hopefully, you saw Danai Gurira dominate her role as Okoye in Marvel’s Black Panther recently. Or maybe you know her as Michonne in The Walking Dead, even though I certainly don’t because I’m not super into the zombie survival story.
Her role in Black Panther was both electric and promising. Obviously, I’m a white woman, so I have had the luxury of seeing women who look like me in Hollywood films since I was old enough to receive VCR’s of Disney princesses. But as a woman, I feel BP did an even better job than Wonder Woman at giving women space to be insanely intelligent, forward-thinking, athletic, funny, and beautiful. The women, especially Gurira’s character, Okoye, who plays the general of the Wakandan army, is not a sex object. She has authority, influence, a sense of humor, loyalty, beauty, and strength.
That kind of portrayal of women is just not familiar to me.
Which leads me to writing this brief review and recommendation (without reservations) of Gurira’s play, Familiar that I got to see at The Guthrie this week in Minneapolis.
It was so apparent to me that this cast of 8 (5 black women, 1 black men, 2 white men) were in stark contrast to the hundreds of white (mostly middle age/retired looking) audience members. Plus, it’s the Guthrie. I got a great deal for my ticket- only $18, but I was in literally the last row in the theatre. (Not complaining though- I loved it.) So there’s an idea for you about access and what is familiar to the general characters of people who show up to this theatre. [I want to add that the Guthrie does offer a couple of initiatives for audiences with lower income- check it out here.]
The whole duration of the play, I almost had a muted prayer in my heart for the audience members to experience race-related and privilege-related breakthroughs as they watched. The story follows two generations- parents who grew up in Zimbabwe and their children who were raised in the United States. The setting of the play is in a Minnesota home with an open-floor plan belonging to the two Zim American parents, whose relatives have gathered for the wedding of one of their daughters to a white man from Minnetonka.
I know for me, some of the only storylines I am exposed to that include immigration stories or people who are black are honestly stories of sorrow and struggle. I have to admit I still have not seen 12 Years a Slave, despite winning three Academy awards and starring Lupita N’yong’o, who fun fact- played one of the characters in a different Gurira script (Eclipsed) during its Broadway run.
When you don’t see yourself in stories, except as weak, three-fifths of a human, and in survival mode, what other choice do you have but to write new ones? I am actively trying to find texts written by authors of color especially that highlight the black/immigrant/Latinx/Asian/native experience with more complexity and beauty than the straight up struggle narrative.
The most magical part for me was that this audience filled with white Minnesotans with a tendency to frequent the theatre truly should have been able to relate to Gurira’s characters, despite the differences in skin color, language, religion, traditions, and nationality. There were storylines woven throughout the play that I was absolutely able to find familiar.
I don’t want to be the type of teacher that only teaches black contributions to US History through a white person’s lens: colonization, slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, etc. I don’t want to be the type of person that can only name black contributions to history through name-dropping the token MLK, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, and Sidney Poitier.
My students of color deserve to see their complex, beautiful, conflicting, exciting, risk-taking, mundane, suspenseful, romantic, and comedic lives in the stories they read and see. And my white students need to see that their peers of color, their neighbors of color, the people of color they interact with in the real world, are more than just slave narratives.
Familiar made me laugh out loud at points, think critically about the first generation immigrant experience presented on stage, and connect to the characters and their livelihoods through their relationships with each other.
The show runs through April 14, 2018 at the Guthrie, so if you’re local, please try to go.
And if you’re not, and if you’re into reading scripts, you can buy it here for $12.
Or- skip scrolling social media for 10 minutes and learn more about Danai Gurira and amazing women like her. You can start here: