Steppenwolf at its best: ‘Purpose’ premiere delivers hard truths, hearty laughs

“Purpose” — 4 stars

“Purpose,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ outstanding domestic drama premiering at Steppenwolf Theatre, rings familiar. Not only for the insight and wit characteristic of Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing, but for its central characters: members of a prominent Black Chicago family with roots in religion, politics and the civil rights movement.

If you guessed the Rev. Jesse Jackson and son Jesse Jackson Jr. inspired Jacobs-Jenkins’ characters, you guessed right. The lengthy exposition with its not-so-subtle references confirms as much. But this incisive, laugh-out-loud play under Phylicia Rashad’s solid direction isn’t merely an account of a famous family’s tribulations.

“Purpose,” as the title indicates, is about finding one’s purpose in life. It also examines the idealized image renowned people offer for public consumption vs. their imperfect reality and the burden of fulfilling (or not) the family legacy.

Waukegan native and Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Jon Michael Hill plays Nazareth, the reclusive son of a famed civil rights leader, in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' “Purpose,” running through April 28. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Steppenwolf’s bespoke dramedy stars Waukegan native Jon Michael Hill as the reclusive nature photographer Nazareth Jasper. The youngest son of former globe-trotting civil rights activist the Honorable Rev. Solomon Jasper (Harry Lennix) and his wife, Claudine (Tamara Tunie), Nazareth — to his father’s disappointment — dropped out of divinity school a semester shy of graduation. As the play opens, he’s on his way to Chicago for a family reunion accompanied by his friend Aziza (Ayanna Bria Bakari), a queer woman eager for a child to whom the amenable Nazareth has donated his sperm.

Recently paroled Solomon “Junior” Jasper (Glen Davis), standing left, gives his mother Claudine (Tamara Tunie), center, her belated birthday gift in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of “Purpose,” directed by Phylicia Rashad. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Claudine’s belated birthday celebration is the stated reason for the gathering. But it’s really a homecoming for oldest son Solomon Junior (Glenn Davis), a disgraced Maryland state senator newly paroled from federal prison — a “white collar, minimum security summer camp” — where he served 24 months of a 30-month sentence for embezzling campaign funds. Unwittingly ensnared in her husband’s scheme, Junior’s wife, Morgan (the great Alana Arenas, radiating resentment), is a week from reporting to federal prison to serve her 12-month sentence for filing false tax forms. For the record, the fictional couple’s case recalls that of Jesse Jackson Jr. and his then-wife Sandi Jackson, who in 2013 pleaded guilty to similar charges. Per a judge’s order, they served their sentences consecutively so one of them could be home with their children.

The celebratory dinner commences with blessings and gifts followed by accusations, revelations and condemnations. It concludes with a fierce confrontation that recalls the brawl at the end of Act II of Tracy Letts’ 2007 dysfunctional family dramedy “August: Osage County.” The similarities don’t end there. There are echoes of Letts’ viciously honest matriarch Violet Weston in Jasper patriarch Solomon, who, while not as cruel (or drug-addled), is equally committed to truth-telling, regardless of the damage that results.

Nazareth (Jon Michael Hill) shares late-night confidences with sister-in-law Morgan (Alana Arenas) in Steppenwolf Theatre's world premiere of “Purpose,” directed by Phylicia Rashad. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

In the second act, Jacobs-Jenkins examines more closely those “third-rail” issues the Jasper family is reluctant to address: infidelity, sexuality, mental illness, neuro-divergence and abortion. That’s a lot to pack into three hours. Moreover, each character has a potent monologue (in some cases more than one), which Rashad’s cast superbly delivers. Still, excess speeches overload the narrative, which some editing would improve. But those are minor points in what is a major work.

In a WTTW report that aired last week, Jacobs-Jenkins confirmed “Purpose” was unfinished when rehearsals began to allow for “a deep collaboration with actors,” which the playwright called “the truest form of playmaking.” To that end, the program notes indicate Jacobs-Jenkins tailored his characters to Rashad’s ensemble.

I suspect that might be true for Hill, whose performance as Nazareth is note-perfect, and for Arenas. In a production notable for its expertly timed comic asides, Arenas — incandescent as the righteously outraged Morgan — lands every punchline.

As for ex-con Junior, is he troubled, as his recent bipolar diagnosis suggests? Or is he a scheming politician feigning mental illness to justify his crimes? Davis’ elusive performance keeps the audience guessing. Tunie occupies the other end of the spectrum as the iron-willed, effortlessly graceful and quietly commanding Claudine. Never for a moment do we doubt her determination to protect her family.

Solomon “Sonny” Jasper (Harry Lennix) and his wife, Claudine (Tamara Tunie), star in “Purpose,” running through April 28 at Steppenwolf Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Lennix is commanding as an aging civil rights icon wrestling with regret, rekindling his faith and struggling to uncover his purpose, which likely involves beekeeping. Lennix’s performance suggests a man who wears his fame lightly but relishes the admiration he receives from the admiring Aziza. Bakari is canny and credible as a young woman confronting her idols’ clay feet.

Unfolding on Todd Rosenthal’s stylish, inviting set, “Purpose” is Steppenwolf at its best: bold, muscular, impossible to ignore and destined to endure.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through April 28. Also, 2 p.m. April 10. No 7:30 p.m. performance April 10 or 16.

Running time: About 2 hours 50 minutes, with intermission

Tickets: $20-$116

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