When Danya Taymor was hired by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company to direct the new comedy, Familiar, she knew that she had to get the cultural elements exactly right. The play, which focuses on a Zimbabwean-American family preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter, hinges on the conflict between Shona culture of Zimbabwe and American society.
In need of expert help, Taymor sought out Kathryn Takabvirwa, a member of the anthropology faculty at the University of Chicago. 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 the production.
But Takabvirwa wasn’t so sure. “I didn’t know anything about the theater,” she said.
Taymor assured Takabvirwa experience in the preforming arts wasn’t required. What the production needed was a scholar who understood the complexities of the Shona culture.
“Kathryn was amazing,” Taymor said. “She brought so much authenticity to this play.”
A social and cultural anthropologist, Takabvirwa is teaching this winter in the African Civilizations sequence of UChicago’s distinctive Core Curriculum. In Takabvirwa’s class, students will discuss Zimbabwean culture, marriage and migrant diasporic life. She sees a strong connection between the play and anthropologic studies, planning to bring her work on Familiar into the classroom.
“It’s about communicating cultural norms and rituals of a Zim family to other people,” said Takabvirwa, who has been a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UChicago since 2018 and will become an assistant professor starting in 2020. “It was wonderful to be a part of that process.”
At Steppenwolf, Takabvirwa spent her first week on the project listening to the actors read through the play written by Danai Gurira, a Zimbabwean-American actress and playwright known for her roles in the film Black Panther and TV show The Walking Dead.