Harare, March 20th 2016 | Kudzai Sevenzo
I walked gingerly into the rehearsal room for Danai’s play “Familiar,” delighted that I had been allowed to become the proverbial fly on the wall (or so I thought) for this off-Broadway play at Playwrights Horizons. After meeting the playwright, director and incredibly talented cast, I sat quietly in a corner to observe. I was watching the perfect collaboration – a beautifully written play that was perfectly cast and a sensitive and intuitive director. It doesn’t get any better than this!
Bringing the Zimbabwean experience to an American cast is no easy feat; our culture, language and mannerisms are so vastly different. To familiarise the actors with Zimbabwe’s rich culture and language, a country thousands of miles away, an information board with vivid images from Zimbabwean history and its artefacts (such as the mbira) set the tone in the rehearsal room. This backdrop created an organic space where actors and director would be drawn into the culture and history of the nationality that they were going to embody.
After having sat in a few rehearsals, I was asked to assist the dialect coach to guide the actors through their Shona speeches and their accent in general. I was no longer just an observer; I was participating in this artistic process! Interestingly, teaching the Shona pronunciation helped me understand the American accent better. For instance: I was able to note that the Zimbabwean speech requires that you use more facial muscles than that of the more laid back American accent. Making this clear distinction was useful for me, as in my auditions I would be asked to present a monologue in a standard American accent (which is a bit like learning a brand new language altogether!).
I was amazed by the actors’ commitment to their work, but most of all their bravery – because it takes a certain amount of bravery to embody a character, let alone learn a new language, accent and the mannerisms that come with it. To learn all that in a very short space of time is amazing! This bravery to discard what you don’t need and take what you need during the rehearsal process, and the generosity and openness of spirit was evident in the actors, director, playwright, costume designers and technical team. It became the glue that held this beautiful story together, allowing the production to grow its own limbs, soul and heartbeat with every rehearsal.
By the time the technical rehearsals began on the main stage I had watched every character come to life and take up the larger space it required. I was accustomed to “long” Zimbabwe rehearsals being approximately 4-6 hours, so I was jolted into a new paradigm when I discovered that technical rehearsals were going to last 12 hours! Actors showed up early for rehearsals (no excuses) and nobody’s energy waned or faded during the duration of those 12 hour rehearsals – I saw a new level of discipline where everyone had one purpose: to dig deeper and tell the story as honestly as possible. It was most refreshing to me that the playwright was present at every rehearsal; answering questions when things were not clear, so that her intention and the essence of her story would never be diluted or lost in the process.
When preview week arrived, I was convinced the production was complete: its humour, tension, lighter moments, vulnerable moments and every other ingredient needed to make a production compelling had been perfected. I thought “This is it!” Everybody could sit back, relax and enjoy their hard work as the audience started coming in to watch the preview shows. Little did I know that the process NEVER ENDS – there is always an opportunity to explore further. On the first preview night, there I was taking detailed notes for the playwright – notes that would be meticulously implemented in the following day’s rehearsals just before the following day’s performance. Spades and shovels in hand; everybody’s search to dig deeper intensified. With each preview night, I witnessed the production transform before my very eyes! I found I was moved in places I hadn’t been moved before, laughing at places I hadn’t noticed humour before – it was like watching a completely new production! Nothing remained static. With every performance night, standing ovation and amazing press review, the team continued to probe and search deeper.
To witness Danai Gurira, the first female playwright to showcase not one play but TWO plays in New York simultaneously (one on Broadway, one off-Broadway) was truly inspiring! “Familiar” brought Zimbabwe culture and identity to the American stage, while “Eclipsed” allowed the African story to be told clearly and unapologetically by Africans (for a change) with a historic all-black female cast right there on Broadway! Empathy and courage were the common thread that allowed each story to be told honestly.
My most valuable lesson in the Rehearsal Room of “Familiar” was this: portraying a character or effectively telling a story has little to do with where you HAVEN’T been, it has EVERYTHING to do with where you are willing to go! And of course, how deep you are willing to search for truth!