Review: Steppenwolf’s Last Night and the Night Before Tells a Family Story Laced by Drug Use, Violence…and Love

Last Night and the Night Before at Steppenwolf Theatre is a tale of complex family relationships crippled by drug use and violence—but with love as the overriding theme. Donnetta Lavinia Grays’ play, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, features two sisters, one married and barely getting by with her husband and daughter in Georgia, the other living in Brooklyn with her female partner, both of whom have professional careers.

The play opens with an ominous prologue. A man digs, sweats and swears, creating a grave and rolling a corpse into it. The scene is observed from a distance by a little girl, seated, and a woman, sitting silently, stage left. The play that follows portrays complicated but loving relationships, with many time shifts from past to present. Some scenes, especially in act two, seem inserted as pure backstory.

Sydney Charles and Alyanna Nicole. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Monique (Ayanna Bria Bakari) and her lively young daughter Sam (played by Alyanna Nicole in the performance I reviewed) arrive in Brooklyn early in the morning after a long drive from the fictional town of Vixten, Georgia. They’re uninvited, running away from something—but it’s not clear what. Monique’s sister Rachel (Sydney Charles) and her partner Namida (Jessica Dean Turner) are surprised by the visitors and it’s not exactly a warm welcome. Monique begs to be allowed to stay for a few days while she gets some things straight. A few scenes later, there’s a family Christmas dinner, cooked by Monique and prefaced by her long and involved prayer of grace. And then…Monique disappears, leaving Sam with her “aunties.” 

Monique’s husband and Sam’s father Reggie (played by the charismatic actor Namir Smallwood) is a bit of a mystery as a man. Or he at least presents several puzzles. Monique tells Rachel and Namida that Reggie lost his job and cheated on her, while he denies both. The scenes where Reggie cleans and fiddles with a handgun are chilling. But Reggie is a loving father and in several scenes, he and Sam play clapping games with rhymes based on jump-rope songs. The play’s title derives from one of them: “Not last night but the night before / Twenty-four robbers came knocking at my door / As I ran out, they ran in / Hit them over the head with the frying pan.” (Or “a rolling pin,” in some versions.)

Kylah Renee Jones and Namir Smallwood. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Last Night is enhanced by the intriguing set environment, described in Grays’ script, which shows the Brooklyn home, lighted and warm, while darkness surrounds the perimeter of the stage where scenes are set in Georgia, past and present. The scenic design by Regina Garcia beautifully enhances the play’s dramatic moods and is an important element—even a character in itself—in the creation of the story. The set design is dramatized by Mary Louise Geiger’s essential lighting and Larry Fowler’s sound design. Costumes are by Izumi Inaba. Gigi Buffington is voice and dialect coach.

Charles and Turner are a strong and believable couple and their relationship seems loving and rooted. In a uniformly strong cast, the young actor who plays Sam still stands out. Alyanna Nicole is an authentic 10-11 year-old girl but handles her dialogue with adult actors with clarity and understanding. She alternates performances with Kylah Renee Jones. In one beautifully written scene, Sam comes in to the living room carrying a bedsheet with blood spots, fearful that she’s hurt and dying. Aunt Rachel’s explanation to her of what is happening to her body and its symbolic, as well as physical, meaning is a lovely moment.

Donnetta Lavinia Grays’ play premiered in 2019 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, where the play was developed in 2017. She is a Brooklyn-based playwright whose other works include Warriors Don’t Cry and Where We Stand. Her work has won several playwriting awards. She’s also an actor and screenwriter.

Last Night and the Night Before continues through May 14 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Running time is two hours, including one intermission.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.