When Danya Taymor was hired to direct Steppenwolf’s new comedy, Familiar by Danai Gurira, she knew that she had to get the cultural elements exactly right. The play, which focuses on a Zimbabwean-American family as they prepare for the wedding of their eldest daughter, hinges on the conflict between Shona culture of Zimbabwe and the impact of American society. “Danai told me that no production of Familiar should be done without a cultural consultant,” Taymor says.
The team wasn’t sure where they would find such an expert, but with a little research they came to the Division’s Department of Anthropology. There, they found Kathryn Takabvirwa, who joined the University of Chicago in August 2018 as a Provost's Postdoctoral Fellow and will become Assistant Professor in 2020. Takabvirwa grew up in Zimbabwe, and her research focuses on citizenship, culture, and society in Southern Africa. Her background and work made her the ideal consultant for this project. But, Takabvirwa says, “I didn’t know anything about the theater.”
Taymor assured her that what they really needed was someone who understood the complexities of the Shona culture, so she took the job. “Kathryn was amazing,” Taymor says. “She brought so much authenticity to this play.”
Takabvirwa spent her first week on the project listening to the actors read through the play, and talking with them about the context of the story, and why seemingly modest elements of the dialogue and direction were so important. From acknowledging the relevance of ancestral connections that extend relations beyond that of parents and their children to understanding the appropriate ways of sitting, of clapping, of greeting an elder, Takabvirwa brought vital insights to the story and in some cases helped Taymor avoid making unintentional missteps.
Taymor recalls one scene in which the father and daughter are watching football together, and when the team scored a touchdown, she had them celebrate with a chest bump. “I didn’t think twice about the interaction, it was just a moment of celebration,” she says. But Takabvirwa demurred. She explained that a man in Zimbabwe would never thump chests with his daughter, and that the scene had to be altered or would interrupt the realism of the interaction. “It was a small moment but it had so much impact,” Taymor says, noting that she changed the direction to a fist bump. “I didn’t have the knowledge to pick up on that, but she did.”
Takabvirwa also helped Taymor rework blocking to ensure younger characters always showed respect to their elders. In Shona culture, a younger person would never stand and talk to an older person who was sitting down or choose a position higher up. Takabvirwa explains, “It seems like a small thing, but the way you sit matters.”
Taymor used that knowledge in one scene where Maggie, one of the aunts, remains standing while her two elder sisters are seated. “It is a deliberate way of reminding the audience that she has been out of Zimbabwe for a long time,” Takabvirwa says.
This Winter Quarter, she will teach a class in the African Civilizations sequence, in which she will discuss Zimbabwean culture, marriage and migrant diasporic life. She hopes to take her students to see the play, which she feels is relevant to anthropologic studies. “It’s about communicating cultural norms and rituals of a Zim family to other people,” she says. “It was wonderful to be a part of that process.”
Familiar, which has been called an “exceptionally insightful…layered, compelling depiction of the unescapable pull of family and history,” is playing at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theater through January 13.