Steppenwolf Theatre Company continues its 47th season with the Chicago premiere of Last Night and The Night Before, a brilliantly conceived, directed and performed vintage 2017 crowd-pleaser, that is at once a joyous affirmation of the power of love to transform life along with a grim coda reminding us how daunting it is to raise a child even with that kind of love. This is a violent racist, sexist world where adolescents help their dad polish guns before jigging with him to the beat of ancient hopscotch rhythms.
Donnetta Lavinia Grays’ script flows seemingly seamlessly; coached by Valerie Curtis-Newton’s spot-on direction, abetted by the skills of Intimacy Choreographer Kirsten Baity, Fight Choreographer Maya Vinice Prentiss and Company Voice,Text and Dialect Coach Gigi Buffington, shaping and projecting the nuances of the dialogue. Strategically, the action is framed by all the characters, all of whom are black, known to the others, and all of whom get to interact with one another repeatedly, as the action and recollections go back and forth in time and tense. Ultimately, we come to know them, their various specific emotional history and modes of expression, and the deeply committed audience on Press Night oohed and aahed at their heartfelt cries of rage, lovelorn, forlorn and compassion.
When the girlchild- exquisitely portrayed this evening by Kylah Renee Jones, who shares the role with Aliyana Nicole-is gracefully happy, we are glad, when she sits silently without affect, we worry. This is an extraordinary accomplishment in a sold-out sophisticated house in under 2 hours. Part of that effect is due to the so-familiar causes of grief, tragedy and suffering, heroin addiction, murder and prostitution, family betrayal and estrangement, poverty, child pregnancy. Part of the remarkable connectivity is also the tautly expressed succinct mantras of the players- “That’s just the way things is, girl; Whatever you call her, you call me; You shine in the darkness”. And part of the worked magic is the endless talent of the Steppenwolf cast.
Namir Smallwood-always mesmerizing- is at his best as Reggie, the only male in the cast- father, brother-in-law, husband; he segues between the roles effortlessly and literally exudes the type of deep natural affection that once felt and known can never be extinguished from one’s heart. Smallwood is unfailingly “real”- with young Jones, he is direct, tender, playful and instructive. With wife Ayanna Bria Bakari he is overwhelmingly supportive; in the face of her heroin habit, he mourns, “Oh why do you do this to yourself”, searching for the means to help. He will do anything to help. With his sister-in-law, played by Sydney Charles, and her girlfriend, played by Jessica Dean Turner, he makes himself a believable helpmate.
And the women actors! Bakari is uncanny as a rap-poet and jive addict. When she’s “high”, her whole self skids, nods, mumbles, keens. Charles, as Bakari’s guilt-ridden older sibling, tears her life and partner into pieces to keep the child safe with her. And Turner’s anger, resignation and sorrow are palpable- “I match up souls with safe places”.
Don’t miss this gem-
All photos by Michael Brosilow