Director Phylicia Rashad and Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins on Family and Purpose | Playbill

Regional News Director Phylicia Rashad and Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins on Family and Purpose

The two artists are collaborating on a new play at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, about the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

Phylicia Rashad and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Joel Moorman

This spring, New York and Chicago will both have a family drama by two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins onstage. The current Broadway production of Appropriate, which marks his Broadway playwriting debut, recently announced a second extension and a transfer to the Belasco Theatre beginning March 25. Meanwhile in the Windy City, the cast of Steppenwolf Theatre’s world premiere of Purpose, directed by two-time Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad, gives its first performance on March 14 and has just been extended until April 28.

A blistering drama about a white family set on a former Arkansas plantation, Appropriate dates back to 2013, when the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville and Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago presented the co-world premiere. Nearly a decade after its subsequent Off-Broadway run in 2014, the play opened on Broadway in a critically acclaimed production directed by Lila Neugebauer. Steppenwolf commissioned Purpose—about a Black family from Illinois with deep roots in politics and the Civil Rights Movement—not long after Appropriate’s Off-Broadway run, but the new play developed “in fits and starts,” in part because of the disruptions of the pandemic, said Jacobs-Jenkins. “I’ve always been interested in family dramas, obviously,” says the playwright. “I wanted to explore a different set of people, a different context, a different way into the same story and the same history.”

When Jacobs-Jenkins was first approached about writing a play for Steppenwolf, he was very excited by the idea. “Steppenwolf obviously has not just an amazing track record of great American writing, but they just have one of the best actor ensembles—probably the best actor ensemble, I might argue—in the world. And I specifically wasinterested in some actors who, at the time, were young upstarts, and this included Glenn Davis, Alana Arenas, and Jon Michael Hill. Of course, in the time since, they have been feted and acknowledged as the stars they are.”

Davis, Arenas, and Hill—all Steppenwolf ensemble members—are now in the cast of Purpose (Davis has also been the theater’s co-artistic director since 2021). Harry Lennix (The Blacklist, The DC Universe) and Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU, I Wanna Dance with Somebody) make their Steppenwolf debuts in the play. Completing the cast is Ayanna Bria Bakari, whose Chicago theater credits include appearances at Steppenwolf, Goodman Theatre, and Chicago Shakespeare.

Ayanna Bria Bakari, Jon Michael Hill, Harry Lennix, Tamara Tunie, Alana Arenas, and Glenn Davis Joel Moorman

“The great thing about working with Steppenwolf—working with an actors’ company—is they’re very particular about who they will work with as a director,” notes Jacobs-Jenkins. Shepherding Purpose to its world premiere is Phylicia Rashad, who directed Jen Silverman’s The Roommate at Steppenwolf in 2018. Rashad recalls seeing her first play by Jacobs-Jenkins, The Comeuppance, at New York’s Signature Theater in 2023. “I thought, ‘Oh, this writer is genius,’” she says. So, taking on Purpose was a simple decision.

Rashad sees the genre of family drama as rich with possibilities for both unique stories and universal themes. “Family is a very interesting configuration,” she muses. “No two are exactly alike, and yet there are dynamics that can play out that are common, such as expectations and disappointments, changes with time, the way people were, the way they are, unexpected consequences, withheld information, changing dynamics within a union, within a marriage. And this thing that happens in so many families—you live with people, and yet, you don’t really know them.”

Purpose has six characters: a father, mother, one son and his wife, and another son with a friend that he unexpectedly brings home to Illinois. The parents are part of the so-called Silent Generation, which preceded the Boomers and “had a very different relationship to what it was to be African American in the 20th century,” explains Jacobs-Jenkins. “They would have come up with different kinds of traumas.”

Having achieved upward mobility and a sense of stability through their activism, the parents see their two sons take divergent paths in life. One of them is a disgraced politician, and his homecoming from prison is the reason for the family gathering. "They’re sort of wrestling with the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and how it lives now or does not live now,” says Jacobs-Jenkins. “That movement gave a certain generation a sense of purpose that I don’t know that the children in this play feel connected to.” Purpose, he suggests, explores how the “ideas and possibilities for what family means have evolved through generations.”

Jon Michael Hill, Ayanna Bria Bakari, Harry Lennix, Phylicia Rashad, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Tamara Tunie, Alana Arenas, and Glenn Davis Joel Moorman
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