Theater 2019-20: Steppenwolf leaps into a year filled with rivalries, yearnings, truths and bugs
Fifth in a series of season previews: From basketball as identity marker to the ferocity of dance, nine plays embrace human comedy.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Sport meets dreams in multi-cultural America in a Steppenwolf Theatre season that bounces across continents and generations, sometimes in the same show. The lineup includes two world premieres.
Or, as associate artistic director Leelai Demoz puts it, the Steppenwolf prospectus is dotted with “entry points” for self-discovery, self-realization and the painful embrace of hard truths.
The first world premiere, ensemble member Eric Simonson’s “Lindiwe,” something of a spin on the Orpheus legend that has one foot in Chicago’s Kingston Mines blues club and the other quite a distance off, brings to town the famed South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The all-male ensemble, which has provided music essential to the narrative, also will appear in every performance.
The second premiere, “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” adapted by Isaac Gomez from the book by Erika L. Sánchez, is part of Steppenwolf’s Young Adults series, which notably underscores the “adult” part of that phrase. The other YA offering is a revival of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size.” Steppenwolf suggests eighth-grade minimum for viewers of its YA productions, and presents many daytime performances for area school-goers. Experience suggests there will be ample reward in these shows for the most veteran theater-goers.
The 2019-20 season in brief:
- “The Great Leap” by Lauren Yee (through Oct. 20): The local star of the sidewalk basketball courts of San Francisco’s Chinatown strongarms his way onto an American college team traveling to Beijing for a “friendship” game. Set amidst the friction of post-cultural revolution China, Yee’s witty play explores the cultural collision of identity and politics through the game of basketball. “It’s a cool combination of theater and a game, and it’s authentic on several levels,” says Demoz. “This 17-year-old Chinese American kid in search of his own identity is already a street basketball star in San Francisco’s Chinatown – as Lauren Yee’s father was. The kid wants to play with the University of San Francisco team that’s going to China.”
- “The Brothers Size” by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Young Adults series, Oct. 2-19): Ogun Size is hardworking and heartbroken. Oshoosi Size is recently returned home from prison and trying to be anywhere but. In this fierce and honest look at the complex bonds of brotherhood, McCraney weaves together poetry, music and Yoruba mythology to magnify the tug-of-war between freedom and the need to belong somewhere, to something, to someone.
“Lindiwe” by Eric Simonson, with music by Ladysmith Black Mambazo (World premiere, Nov. 7-Jan. 5, 2020): The evocative live music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo forms the foundation of this Steppenwolf world premiere production written and co-directed by ensemble member Eric Simonson. As the story travels from Chicago’s Kingston Mines blues club to South Africa and beyond, “Lindiwe” probes the boundaries between this world and the next, all the while exploring the sacrifices we make for love. “This is a beautiful, poignant play about two young people who will do anything to stay together,” says Demoz. “It’s loosely based on the Orpheus legend, with a narrative driven by the songs of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which also serves as a sort of Greek chorus.” The celebrated South African vocal group will perform through the show’s entire run.
- “Dance Nation” by Claire Barron (Dec. 12-Feb. 2, 2020): A pre-teen dance troupe navigates ambition, friendship and desire as they claw their way to the Nationals in Tampa Bay. Featuring a multigenerational cast of women playing the pre-teen heroines, Barron’s play is funny, theatrically inventive and full of heart. “It’s about the age-old stuff of competition and the stakes that test friendships,” says Demoz. “It gets down to basic ferocity.”
“Bug” by Tracy Letts (Jan. 23-March 8, 2020): In a seedy Oklahoma motel room, a lonely waitress begins an unexpected love affair with a young drifter. And then they see the first bugs. Tracy Letts’s luridly funny tale of love, paranoia and government conspiracy roars back to Chicago for its Steppenwolf debut. “In our design discussions for ‘Bug,’ we debated the question of whether the bugs are robots or real,” says Demoz. “The paranonia is real for this Gulf War vet who has come home to the surveilled world we’ve opted into.”
- “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” adapted by Isaac Gomez from the book by Erika L. Sánchez (World premiere, Young Adults series, Feb. 26-March 21, 2020): Overcoming assorted obstacles, a Chicago high school student pursues her dream of becoming a writer after the death of her older sister – who might not have been quite as perfect as she seemed. This poignant and vibrant new work is a love letter to young Chicanas who, in trying to find the truth about the people and the world around them, end up finding themselves. “The daughter in a Mexican American family is trying to understand the death of her sister, while at the same time dealing with the expectations of her family to be like her sister,” says Demoz. “The dialogue is very in touch with young people: It is alive, honest, raw, all about the time of tumult for a teenager.”
“The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” by James ljames (April 2-May 17, 2020): The recently widowed “Mother of America” lies helpless in her Mount Vernon bed, ravaged by illness and attended to by the very enslaved people who are free the moment she dies. The form-shifting fever dream that follows takes us deep into the ugly, uncomfortable and thorny ramifications of America’s original sin. Both fantastical and fraught with cruel reality, ljames’ bold theatrical excursion pulls no punches as it puts our idols, and ourselves, on trial. “History reflects the perspective of the victors, the powerful,” says Demoz. “This play is going to be challenging to many people. In his attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth, the playwright turns history on its head. It’s very stylized, but also quite realistic.”
- “King James” by Rajiv Joseph (World premiere, May 7-June 21): The reign of basketball superstar “King” LeBron James in Cleveland brings promise, prosperity and renewal to a city in desperate need of all three. As the city celebrates a championship, two estranged friends spar in a verbal game of one on one, revealing past secrets, present truths and a possible future after The King has left the building. Steppenwolf in association with Center Theatre Group co-presents this world premiere by ensemble member Rajiv Joseph. “King James” will also be produced in Los Angeles as part of Center Theatre Group’s 2020-21 season. “Two people who don’t know each other become friends through their shared enthusiasm for basketball and the arrival in Cleveland of LeBron James,” says Demoz. “But when he ultimately decides to move on, they react quite differently. They’re both super-fans, but they don’t relate to James’ exit in the same way.”
- “Catch As Catch Can” by Mia Chung (June 4-July 26, 2020): Two blue collar New England families grapple with a spiraling crisis that threatens not just their relationships, but their very identities. Three actors take on the six roles, crossing both generation and gender in a theatrical tour-de-force. When asked to comment on Chung’s play, Demoz replied, in effect: “Don’t ask.” He said he couldn’t offer much that wouldn’t reveal too much. But he did allow that “as the play progresses, more is revealed.” That sounds promising.