“Purpose” at Steppenwolf review-a worldclass world premiere

Harry Lennix, Alana Arenas, Glenn Davis, Tamara Tunie, Ayana Bria Bakari and Jon Michael Hill in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's "Purpose" by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Phylicia Rashad; photo by Michael Brosilow
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Steppenwolf Theatre Company is currently presenting the world premiere of Purpose by double Pulitzer nominee Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by double Tony winner Phylicia Rashad, in its Downstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through April 28, 2024.

The hugely talented cast features ensemble members Alana Arenas, in a notably emotional and bitter role; Artistic Director Glenn Davis, as a stunningly vulnerable, spiritually tormented man, and Jon Michael Hill, as the fully human central figure, a  searcher for purpose over pain; with Ayana Bria Bakari, as a vividly enthusiastic turned level-headed millennial; with Tamara Tunie, who gives us the ultimate strong mother who never misses a bid for control;  and Henry Lennix, thoroughly impressive as the paterfamilias whose act cannot be followed-(Cedric Young will take over his role in the extended run).

The play, like others Jacobs-Jenkins has written, and at which Steppenwolf excels in presenting, is a twisted family drama, richly spliced with humanity and mining a deep vein of complex humor, even inspiring hilarity. The personalities are minutely developed, the connections expertly drawn, while old and new conflicts emerge and are resolved or explicitly left unresolved: no aspect of the saga or the personae is left to chance.

The process is manifestly remarkable, given that each protaganist is complicated, their history is extensive, they interact and intersect in new, old, forgotten and then remembered ways. One can almost see the neural pathways opening and expanding, while threatening to be overwhelmed. And the language! It’s beautifully drawn, laser sharp, eloquent and the monologues are often soliloquy level deep.

Jonn Michael Hill, Glenn Davis, Ayanna Bria Bakari and Harry Lennix

It’s tempting, as a Chicago native, to find that the characters are based upon the Jesse Jackson family: the dad, (in life as in the play) who was at MLK’s side, became a legend in his own time, a minister, politician, civil rights leader and womanizer; the namesake eldest son indicted and jailed for financial shenanigans, claiming mental/physical illness; Jr’s wife succeeding him with a lesser sentence for signing the tax returns, and an out of the spotlight younger son. But it’s actually not that the Jackson family’s troubles underline the drama, but that they are iconic, each an exemplar of every important family’s issues in the larger world.

The wonderful cast works in a true collaboration to deploy a story that causes both ripples of knowing laughter as well as sharp intakes of breath. The encounters between the family members, with the addition of an adoring outside-the-fold and unexpected guest,  gathering in the parental domicile to celebrate matriarch/barrister mom’s birthday, bring about an extraordinarily well-choreographed series of vignettes.
Each segment of each scene highlights the long standing patterns of pain infliction, the grappling for acknowledgement and validation, the secrets that slip out, the reins of control that are gathered and loosened. 

Brilliantly conceived and performed, what ultimately develops, of course,  are the same stalemates that were incepted in the boys’ childhoods: a cry for help refuted by one is heard by another; the boys mother/lawyer chivvies for grandchildren but executes distancing legal contracts, dad seems to listen to guest and sons, but forever turns back to the callings of his own ego. Finally, in a post-modern denouement of feminist protection, we realize that Junior’s wife and second son’s friend- each in her own way- removes her children from the infectious family heritage into a contact free/inception free zone of privacy, the epitome of no more chances.

Steppenwolf Ensemble Member Jon Michael Hill as Naz

Kudos to scenic designer Todd Rosenthal for a set as commodious and real as the play itself; to costume designer Dede Ayite, who dressed the cast with wit and fit; to lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker who turned believable night into believable day; to sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, who created a realistic accompaniment, and to choreographer Matt Hawkins, who moved the players into and out of each other with grace.

All photos by Michael Brosilow

For information and tickets, go to www.steppenwolf.org


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