Rolling Out

‘Purpose’ is a theatrical triumph that explores the family dynamic

From the exceptional cast, powerful writing to the masterful direction, discover why “Purpose” showing at the Steppenwolf Theatre is the talk of Chicago’s theater scene.
Pictured (clockwise from left) Harry Lennix, ensemble members Alana Arenas and Glenn Davis, Tamara Tunie, Ayanna Bria Bakari and ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (Photo courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre)

The Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, renowned for its commitment to powerful and provocative storytelling, outdid itself with the opening night of Purpose on March 24, 2024. This new play, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by the iconic Phylicia Rashad, takes the audience on an intricate journey through the complexities of family life, societal pressures, and the quest for identity. Set in Steppenwolf’s intimate Downstairs Theater, Purpose provides a space where the audience can closely engage with the characters’ emotional landscapes, creating an impactful experience.

At the heart of Purpose is the family, which acts not just as the backdrop, but as the main character of the narrative. Jacobs-Jenkins crafts a story that is both a microcosm of a single family’s struggles and a broader commentary on contemporary societal issues. The brilliance of his writing shines through in the way he intertwines themes of the prison industrial complex, marriage, mental health, sexual orientation, and father-son dynamics into the fabric of the family’s story, creating a rich tapestry of life that is both specific and universally relatable. The pacing of the dialogue is exceptional and engaging.

Jon Michael Hill’s portrayal of Nazareth “Naz” Jasper is a standout, serving as both a narrator and a central figure within the narrative. Hill’s performance bridges the gap between the audience and the stage, offering insights that are both poignant and enlightening. His ability to convey deep emotions and guide the audience through the story’s complex themes is a testament to his skill and sensitivity as an actor.

Harry Lennix, as the family patriarch Solomon “Sonny” Jasper, and Alana Arenas, as Morgan Jasper, deliver riveting performances that anchor the play’s emotional core. Lennix’s Sonny is a figure of immense complexity, wrestling with his own demons while striving to hold his family together. Arenas’ portrayal of Morgan Jasper is equally compelling, providing a window into the soul of a character who navigates a multitude of challenges. Their performances, particularly in scenes with minimal dialogue, showcase an exceptional ability to communicate volumes through silence, gesture, and the subtlest of expressions.

The ensemble cast of Purpose excels across the board, bringing to life the multifaceted dynamics of a family that is at once unique and emblematic of broader societal themes. The chemistry among the cast members is apparent, creating a believable and deeply engaging family dynamic that is both strained and tender. The actors’ collective ability to navigate the play’s shifts from humor to heartbreak, from conflict to catharsis, is a remarkable feat that speaks to their talents and the direction of Phylicia Rashad.

Rashad’s direction is a masterclass in balancing the many elements of the play, from its riveting plot twists to its moments of quiet introspection. She orchestrates the action with a deft hand, ensuring that each theme — be it as personal as sexual orientation or as broad as the prison industrial complex — is given the space to resonate with the audience. Her visionary approach to the material elevates the play, making it not just a story about a family, but a reflection on the pursuit of purpose in the face of societal and personal obstacles.

Purpose stands as a profound statement on the complexities of human life and the unending quest for meaning. It is a must-see for anyone who appreciates theater that not only entertains but also challenges and inspires.

Audiences have the opportunity to experience this remarkable production at the Steppenwolf until April 28, 2024, ensuring that many more will have the chance to witness its powerful message and unforgettable performances. Buy tickets here.

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