Branden Jacobs-Jenkins births a Chicago political drama at Steppenwolf with ‘Purpose’

“Stick a few movie or TV stars in ‘Appropriate,'” I wrote in this newspaper of a show at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, then at the peak of its national influence, “and you’d have a very tasty and viable Broadway show, no question.”

That’s precisely what happened as Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ family drama moved first to the nonprofit Second Stage Theatre’s Broadway house, where a cast that included Sarah Paulson and Elle Fanning received rapturous reviews and saw full houses. On March 25, “Appropriate,” as directed by Lila Neugebauer, moves from the Hayes Theatre into Broadway’s much larger Belasco Theatre in a full-blown commercial run. That’s almost unheard of for a serious, non-musical.

The only strange thing about this story of Jacobs-Jenkins’ success is that a whopping 11 years elapsed between that Chicago run, which was in 2013, and the eventual Broadway discovery of that script, the story of a fractious Arkansas family with skeletons in their past. It took so long that the Tony Awards nominating committee has ruled that, come June, “Appropriate” will be judged as a revival, not a new play

No wonder Jacobs-Jenkins, who is about to launch another new family drama in Chicago — “Purpose,” which opens Sunday at the Steppenwolf Theatre under the direction of Phylicia Rashad — doesn’t like to count his chickens.

“People think I have changed the script to “Appropriate,” Jacobs-Jenkins said the other day in the Steppenwolf bar. “But I really haven’t done anything major. It’s the same play that I wrote all those years ago.”

So, why did all this happen only now?

“Well that’s the magic of a star who really wants to do a play,” he said, dryly. “But it’s also a funny thing. I think the play just became more familiar to people. Over that decade, the thinking around it mainstreamed.”

That’s true, of course: “Appropriate” is about a white family with a generational legacy rooted in racism, antisemitism and personal cruelty, all themes now explored with more regularity in theater. Despite its age, the play feels very much of the current moment.

We talk of the American playwrights who came up around the same time as Jacobs-Jenkins: the likes of Jocelyn Bioh, Joshua Harmon, Amy Herzog, Kristoffer Diaz, Bekah Brunstetter and David Adjmi, all of whom are currently working on (or recently have worked on) Broadway projects.

“You know we all know each other?”Jacobs-Jenkins said. “It seems like this group had to prove something but now all these people are moving into a space they weren’t previously allowed to occupy.”

“Purpose” was a 2015 commission from Steppenwolf, a theater Jacobs-Jenkins accurately describes as “the only real actor-based brand we have in this country.” The theater has a particular affinity with this writer, said Glenn Davis, Steppenwolf’s co-artistic director, “because he has the ability to write for anyone. That’s perfect for an ensemble-based theater like Steppenwolf, where a part of the genesis of the play is which ensemble members will be in the cast. And I think we are getting Branden right now at the peak of his game.”

“Appropriate,” after all, emerged less than five years after Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” to which it owes considerable formative debt (as, for that matter, did a famous episode of the Chicago-based TV show “The Bear”). That play, which is being talked about for a Broadway revival, has proven to have had more influence than any of us expected.

“Every amazing moment in playwriting is linked to a revelation in acting,” Jacobs-Jenkins said, mulling how much Steppenwolf acting has influenced his own generation of playwrights, the one behind Letts, you might say. “Back then, we were living in a moment of 90-minute plays and Sarah Ruhl was the favorite of the literati. Then that muscular realism from Chicago rang out like a bell.”

It will still be ringing, Jacobs-Jenkins hopes, at “Purpose.”

The writer said he had gravitated to the three actors in the cast — Davis, Jon Michael Hill and Alana Arenas — even before he had actually written the play. “At the time, these were the young actors and there was this sense that people were not writing for them,” he said. That changed drastically, of course, especially as the older Steppenwolf ensemble members retreated from the company: Hill became well known, especially for his TV work, Arenas is a distinguished stage actress and Davis now is the co-artistic director of Steppenwolf itself.

And the play? Jacobs-Jenkins describes it as a play about Black political life in the late years of the 20th century. It’s an area the writer knows pretty well, given that he grew up in a Black politically minded family himself (his mother, he notes was at one point one of the few Black Republicans). But this one is set in Chicago. It’s new, too: A hurried Rashad lamented in a telephone interview how little time she had to work on the piece. “That’s the theater,” she said. “There never is enough time. But what a remarkable writer.”

Is “Purpose” Obama-y, I ask, coming back to that previous era?

Possibly, Jacobs-Jenkins allows. “Some of the characters,” he said, “remember the glory days of the civil rights movement: they are like John Lewis or Jesse Jackson.”

Or Danny Davis. “Or Danny Davis,” he said. Glenn Davis said that no commercial producer is attached but that there has been “interest,” which is hardly surprising.

This is, after all, a Chicago play by a playwright far more formed by the potent aesthetics of this city than many realize.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.