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Steppenwolf play ‘Purpose’ doesn’t miss on unveiling hard truths

STEPPENWOLF’S “PURPOSE” WITH Harry Lennix, from left, Alana Arenas, Glenn Davis, Tamara Tunie, Ayanna Bria Bakari, and Jon Michael Hill. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the nation’s premier ensemble theater company, is pleased to continue its 48th season with the world premiere of “Purpose,” an epic family drama by two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by two-time Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad.

“Purpose” will play through April 28 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theater, located at 1650 N. Halsted St.

This was a fantastic play. I hadn’t been out in a while, but with this cast, including Chicago native Harry Lennix, I couldn’t miss it.

“Purpose” features ensemble members Alana Arenas (David Makes Man, The Brother/Sister Plays), who plays Morgan; Glenn Davis (King James, Downstate), who plays Junior; and Jon Michael Hill (Elementary, Pass Over), who plays Nazareth; with Ayanna Bria Bakari (Last Night and the Night Before, The Chi), who plays Aziza; Harry Lennix (The Blacklist, The DC Universe), who plays the patriarch Sonny Jasper, and Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU, I Wanna Dance with Somebody), who plays the mother Claudine.

Play synopsis: For decades, the influential Jasper family has been a pillar of Black American Politics: civil rights leaders, pastors and congressmen. But like all families, there are cracks and secrets just under the surface. When the youngest son Nazareth returns home to Illinois with an uninvited friend in tow, the family is forced into a reckoning with itself, its faith and the legacies of Black radicalism. Spirited, hilarious and filled with intrigue, “Purpose” is an epic family drama – a long-awaited world premiere from one of the country’s most celebrated voices.

Radio broadcasts promote this play as the story of an esteemed Chicago political family. And it didn’t miss the mark, while at turns heaping praise and throwing daggers at this particular family.

“I’m interested in exploring the political dynastic family, and how there is a very thin membrane between their private and public lives,” Jacobs-Jenkins told New City Stage. “By living their lives in public, they expose themselves to certain moral codes that affect their purpose, or status, as a political family. I wanted to think about this American concept of family and how we approach it in drama and apply it to a context I’ve never seen before.”

Artistic Director Glenn Davis was also quoted regarding the inclusion of celebrated director Rashad.

We have an amazing director in [Rashad],” says Davis. “Her leadership has already been outstanding. Given the nature of the cast of characters and the family drama they go through, Phylicia knows that world. She knows the nature of what it is to be in a big, important family with high stakes and far-reaching repercussions for whatever they say or do.”

Davis added: “One of the hallmarks of a Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play is that when two people have an argument, at one moment you agree with one person, then a moment later you agree with the other one. It’s such a beautiful battleground for different folks’ ideologies, ethics and their own sense of moralities.”

And that’s the nature of “Purpose.” It goes back and forth from joy to angst. There’s a concern for Junior, a politician who was imprisoned for white collar crimes. Because of this upheaval, Junior is dealing with bouts of mental illness. And his evil, nonchalant wife is slated to report to prison shortly after this homecoming dinner celebrating his return. And a stranger Aziza has appeared as a friend of Nazareth, a friend that the family had no clue about. The Jaspers don’t know much about Nazareth either, as he’s been estranged.

The quiet tone of the house is disturbed when Aziza unexpectedly returns to the house after dropping off Nazareth. She’s enamored with Sonny and loudly lets the household know her infatuation with the esteemed minister. She’s a hoot with her physical displays of admiration.

And the domineering mother, Claudine, is as sharp in tongue as the kitchen knives. Tunie lays it all out in this role. You don’t dare want to cross her.

There’s a back and forth volley about religion, civil rights, white collar crime, fraud and family legacy that’s slowly eroding.

Lennix as Rev. Jasper is sometimes lost and seeks his solitude as he tends to his bees, but he’s just as acerbic when he reaches the boiling point and not much for suffering fools, as the expression goes. He questions his legacy—although he has his own sins to bear—and wonders if all his hard work was for naught—only for his legacy to be decimated by his sons.

In the end the family remains united, but worst for the wear after such a tumultuous gathering, with surprise revelations—family secrets that are best not shared in mixed company.

The audience has been through it, too, because “Purpose” evokes sighs, gasps and joyous praise from beginning to end.

For locals, it’s a must see—simply to peer into the presumed life of a powerful, political, patriarch’s family.

“Purpose” is playing at Steppenwolf until April 28. For more information, visit

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