Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Review by John Olson

(clockwise from left) Harry Lennix, Alana Arenas,
Glenn Davis, Tamara Tunie, Ayanna Bria Bakari,
and Jon Michael Hill

Photo by Michael Brosilow
Program notes from Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Co-Artistic Directors Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis for the world premiere production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play open with the statement, "family drama has been this company's signature." They did premiere August: Osage County after all. Even so, that's not such a unique claim to make: family dramas have been a significant segment of dramatic literature for centuries. And family dramas are a subset of a larger group of dramatic situations: a group of disparate people are through unusual circumstances confined in the same space or situation and their differences create fireworks in the group. What makes family dramas so compelling compared to that larger set of dramatic situations is the question of whether the family members really are yoked to their family. They may be critical of their parents, children or siblings, but are they really ready to abandon them? Especially if the family offers a great deal of security and prestige?

Jacobs-Jenkins creates such a family for Purpose, but not out of whole cloth. The Jasper family led by Reverend Solomon Jasper (Harry Lennix), a Chicago preacher who has become internationally famous as a civil rights leader and political figure, has clearly been "inspired" (to put it mildly) by the Chicago-based `Reve rand Jesse Jackson and his family. Jacobs-Jenkins imagines life inside the Jackson home in a way similar to Peter Morgan's presumptions of life inside Britain's royal family for The Crown. The Jaspers enjoy privilege, having direct connections to other powerful people, as well as fame and apparently significant wealth, based on the gorgeous two-level home we see courtesy of Todd Rosenthal's expansive bi-level set. (His Steppenwolf set designs for such homes are a big part of the company's ability to lay claim to a specialization in family drama).

The Jasper family's hopes that their two adult sons will carry on the family's tradition of faith-based leadership have been shaken since their elder son Solomon Jr. (Glenn Davis) and his wife Morgan (Alana Arenas) have been convicted of white-collar crimes (fraud and tax evasion). The play is set in a roughly 24-hour period after "Junior" has been released from prison and before Morgan is to begin serving her sentence. Younger son Nazareth (Jon Michael Hill) is a disappointment as well, having dropped out of divinity school and pursued a mostly solitary life. As the play begins, Nazareth returns from a trip to shoot photographs of Canadian lakes (he's become a professional photographer) to attend a birthday party for their mother Claudine (Tamara Tunie). The already tenuous task of keeping up appearances and the family "brand" are further threatened by daughter-in-law Morgan, who feels she was duped by the family into signing off on the fraudulent tax return that led to her conviction. Another interloper who questions the Jaspers' specific family values is Aziza (Ayanna Bria Bakari), Nazareth's platonic lesbian friend who has given him a ride back to Chicago. Aziza's return to New York is delayed by a huge snowstorm (those "unusual circumstances" again), forcing her to attend the birthday dinner and stay overnight.

Nazareth narrates the play and as the Jasper most detached from the family, he is most able to see its flaws. But is he detached enough to break free of it? Will he, like sister-in-law Morgan, reject it? His friend Aziza initially is an admirer of the Jaspers, but as the only complete outsider in the house, quickly begins to see its flaws.

At two hours and forty-five minutes, including intermission, Purpose is a longish play, taking its time to get started. It begins with a long opening monologue by Nazareth, The following sections play like a sophisticated sitcom. The characters take gentle stabs at each other, but we don't immediately get a sense of the play's stakes. Even when we later get a sense of where Jacobs-Jenkins is going, some of the exchanges go on longer than they need to. It's never dull, though, and is performed by a superb cast (although I would like to have seen more Lady Macbeth from Tunie as the controlling matriarch). The standout is Ayanna Brian Bakari, whose Aziza goes from bubbly unexpected guest and fan, through a transformation to a serious young woman who has been seriously disturbed by things she's witnessed during her overnight stay with the Jaspers.

Though the action and the ideas seem for a long time to meander around, it all ends in a satisfying place and Jacobs-Jenkins' intentions become clear. What should be the limits of loyalty to family vs commitment to outside relationships and adherence to simple standards of decency? This story of a powerful, controlling family is built around Black American characters, but its message is more universal than that. A similar story could be told about any powerful family of any race or ethnicity who is concerned with maintaining appearances. Or even about some families that are not nearly as powerful as the Jaspers. There's much here and with some tightening of the script and more kinetic direction than director Phylicia Rashad provides thus far, this could be another hit for the prolific Jacobs-Jenkins.

Purpose has been extended through May 12, 2024, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Downstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted Street, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 312-335-1650.