Review: LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Review: LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE explores the in-between, the murkiness of transitioning life stages and fraught family relationships. Donnetta Lavinia Grays drew inspiration for the play’s title from a playground hand game. Hand games are smartly a thematic thread in the play. Protagonist ten-year-old Sam Mcloud revels in them as a way to amuse herself or by teaching her father Reggie the tricks of the trade. While there’s a childlike innocence to Sam’s play, she’s also on the verge of entering puberty and has had some experiences that are tragically beyond her years. This contrast between childhood play and the darker, all too complicated realities of adulthood becomes the dual strands of the play. Grays’s writing has a distinct rhythm to it, and the unique syncopations of the hand games become additional poetry unto themselves.

Grays beautifully mirrors Sam’s nascent adolescence with the trajectory of her mother Monique. Monique was just a few years older than Sam when she gave birth to her daughter. She’s simultaneously forced to grow up but also experiences arrested development—particularly as we see her struggle with heroin addiction. Likewise, Monique’s older sister Rachel departed the family’s Georgia home and moved up north to New York for college and beyond. Though she has an educated, tidy life with her partner Namina, Rachel carries the guilt of abandoning her sister. When Monique shows up on Rachel’s Brooklyn doorstep with Sam in tow at the beginning of the play, the two sisters are forced to reckon with both past and present. 

Valerie Curtis-Newton’s direction keeps Grays’s already inherently swift moving play move even faster. The production moves quickly but also provides room for familial tension to build. As Sam, Kylah Renee Jones (who alternates the role with Aliyana Nicole) portrays the duality of a sassy pre-teen and a young girl still confused about some of the ways of the world—and particularly of female biology. Jones is a talented young actor, punctuating all of her emotional moments from stubborn to heartbroken. Ayanna Bria Bakari embodies Monique’s massive swings from clear-eyed and motivated to completely strung out, convincingly out of her mind at moments. Bakari also plays the flashback scenes especially well, as she anticipates her daughter’s arrival. Namir Smallwood has a grounded energy as Reggie. Jessica Dean Turner is also stalwart as Nadima, who must contend with realizing that she may not know as much about her girlfriend’s past as she once thought. Rachel is a superb role for Sydney Charles, who is caught between her sister and her girlfriend. Charles is poised, and later raw and exposed, as Rachel. She expertly portrays that Rachel’s trying to hold it all together, until she just can’t anymore.

LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE is a moving portrait of a Black family navigating a pivotal moment of transition. By centering the play on ten-year-old Sam, Grays has devised an anchoring device that garners empathy but also really emphasizes that liminal state between childhood and adulthood. While part of Sam is eager to grow up and become a young woman, another part of her—the one that loves playing hand games and hugging stuffed animals—wants to stay young. Likewise, the adults in the play look back on their younger days with nostalgia but must contend with the harsh, complex realities of adulthood. 

LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE plays the Downstairs Theater at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted, through May 14, 2023. Tickets are $20-$88. Visit for tickets.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

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