Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Danai Guirira’s Familiar is a coming to America story about a Zimbabwean-American family preparing for the wedding of the eldest daughter. The play features a strong cast of Chicago actresses, including Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Jacqueline Williams, Ora Jones, Celeste M. Copper and Lanise Antoine Shelley. But the traditional costumes by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene are setting a “familiar” tone for what it means to be African and American.
How did you approach the costume design for Familiar?
The process started with an initial conversation with Danya Taymor [director], about what she considered the overriding metaphor of the play and a discussion about the characters. I then did research into Zimbabwe and visual research for each character, continually sharing this with Danya and further discussing characters in relation to the visual research I found. From there I sketched my design ideas, again continually sharing with Danya. Working on a play is consistently a collaboration, so there were also conversations with the whole design team to check we were on the same page. Once the sketches were approved, they were shared with the costume shop at Steppenwolf Theatre. They made my dreams come true, and for that I am grateful.
Was there something “familiar” about this play which spoke to you personally?
A lot about this play speaks to me personally. I am from South Africa, which is a country that borders Zimbabwe. We have some similarities in culture, even with the various languages and ethnic groups that exist in both countries. I relate to both Tendi and Nyasha. Nyasha I relate to because I am the youngest of two in my family, and I am the artist so I had to work towards convincing my father that my chosen art form was a viable career path. I relate to Tendi, because of my living here in NYC, and previously in London, I have learned to navigate dating and relationships with people who are a different race and culture to me. One of the bigger conversations in the play is about how to maintain your culture, and live in another country. I wonder about [that] all the time as I consider the possibility of having children someday, who I might bring up here in the U.S. What will be the essential things that I feel are important to teach my children so that they still maintain a relationship to their South Africanness, and my mix of ethnicity being both Swazi, and Pedi, but being raised in a Zulu-speaking household?
What would you be doing if you weren’t in costume design?
I have a business degree in business finance, economics and law, and I had considered going to law school. So I probably would have ended up a lawyer or working in some corporate sector.
Familiar runs through Jan. 13, 2019, at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street. Tickets start at $20, call 312-335-1650 for more information.