Review: Purpose Tackles a Family’s Legacy in Steppenwolf Theatre’s World Premiere

Review by Row Light.

Purpose, a new play written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by legendary actor Phylicia Rashad, follows in the theatrical legacy of plays like August Wilson’s Fences and The Piano Lesson, dealing with the complicated realities facing generations of Black families in America. However, as one character warns, audiences must not “confuse people for what they supposedly symbolize.” This play feels both timely and classic, as the Jasper family struggles to understand contradictions between the morals they grew up with and the lives they end up living. Each character steps out of their prescribed role in some way, and they are each met with new freedoms and new dangers. We see the family (and a bonus member) grappling with their faith in themselves and each other, as they test the foundation on which they’ve built their lives. 

Jacobs-Jenkins’ new play tackles questions of legacy; that of the civil rights movement in America, the histories inherited from our parents, and the lives they hope we lead. The audience is shepherded into the narrative by the Jasper family’s younger son Naz, full name Nazareth (played by Jon Michael Hill), who serves superbly as the narrator and family explainer throughout the play. He appears laid back as he describes his father's "greatest disappointment": Naz leaving divinity school to become a nature photographer. He provides humorous asides about the family dynamic, saying that their love language is “playing Devil’s advocate” and that they compete in “the Olympics of doing the most.” 

Harry Lennix, Ayanna Bria Bakari, and Tamara Tunie. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

When Naz returns home for his mother's birthday, he’s met by the Jaspers’ matriarch Claudine (Tamara Tunie), his father, Solomon, aka Sonny, an orator and icon of the civil rights movement (Harry Lennix), his older brother and disgraced politician Solomon Jr., aka Junior (Glenn Davis), and Junior’s less-than-satisfied wife Morgan (Alana Arenas). In addition to the family drama expected at any reunion, there’s an unexpected spanner in the works when Naz’s friend Aziza (played by the delightful Ayanna Bria Bakari) gets snowed in with the rest of his family. There’s a reason Steppenwolf’s artistic directors Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis claim family drama as the company’s signature genre: Purpose nails both the humor and gravity it requires. 

However, there are so many conversations throughout the play that viewers are left with few questions unanswered. On the way out of the theater, the overwhelming response from audience members was a mixture of “That was amazing!” and “That was long!” Ultimately, the play could deliver the same brilliant performances and sharp cultural commentary while cutting some of the excess dialogue. 

Jon Michael Hill. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

For the entirety of its three-hour running time, the play and its characters exist entirely in their own world. The audience hears mentions of their outside lives—Solomon’s lecture circuit, Junior’s recent loss of political influence, Morgan’s ruined law career and their two children staying with her parents, Aziza’s degree in social work, and, of course, Naz’s love for the Great Lakes. Other issues broached include: the prison industrial complex, the Black Lives Matter movement, and careers in politics and religion. Aside from some confusing conversations about mental illness and sexuality, the interactions on stage are finely tuned, and the writing holds significance that extends far beyond the fourth wall. Still, the play—as its patriarch Solomon said of himself—is "not preaching to you from a place of exceptionalism."

Rashad's direction is smart and sure and her cast of veteran Chicago actors helps fulfill the promise of the family saga. Todd Rosenthal's set design recreates the magnificent family manse, abetted by lighting by Amith Chandrashakar. Costumes are by Dede Ayte. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen are sound designers. Laura D. Glenn is stage manager.

Purpose is an epic family drama, and for Chicagoans, it’s not fiction. It’s clearly based on the story of the Jesse Jackson family. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and longtime leader of Operation Push, was a presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988. His son, Jesse Jackson Jr., was a US Representative for eight terms, resigning in 2012 after being charged with campaign finance violations; he served a term in federal prison. His wife, Sandi Jackson, also served time for filing false tax returns. 

Playwright Jacobs-Jenkins’ work is familiar to Chicago theater fans. Goodman Theatre staged Gloria in 2017 and An Octoroon was produced by Definition Theatre the same year. Appropriate, another family saga now on Broadway, was staged by Victory Gardens Theater in 2013.

Purpose has been extended through May 12 at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St. Running time is 2 hours and 50 minutes including an intermission. You can get tickets ($20-$102) here.

Row Light (she/they) is a Chicago-based culture writer and editor. You can find their work at row-light.com.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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