What Makes a Family

In ‘Last Night and the Night Before,’ a Lesbian Couple Proves Home is Where the Heart Is

· Updated on October 4, 2023

I have always loved musicals, but for whatever reason, I had long decided plays were not for me. It has always been hard for me to believe a play could bring the same energy and pack the same punch as the bright, dazzling, over-the-top world of Broadway.

Enter Last Night and the Night Before, currently playing at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. I was literally leaning forward in my seat as I took in this powerhouse of a story centered on a family caught up in a cycle of falling apart, piecing itself back together, and falling apart again.

When Monique shows up with her daughter, Sam, at the home of her estranged sister, Rachel, she claims her husband left her, and they had nowhere else to go. But as Monique and Sam settle in with Rachel and her long-term girlfriend, Nadima, it becomes clear that Monique – who has long battled drug addiction – has shared far from the whole story. As the dark truth unravels, so, too, does the family’s delicate, ever-teetering web of relationships.

Ayanna Bria Bakari, Kylah Renee Jones and Sydney Charles in Last Night and the Night Before
(l-r) Ayanna Bria Bakari, Kylah Renee Jones, and Sydney Charles in ‘Last Night and the Night Before.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

Last Night and the Night Before delivers a truly unpredictable journey through the lives of these women, each more resilient than the last. The story alternates between the family’s struggles in modern-day Brooklyn and flashbacks to the sisters’ rural Georgia hometown, skillfully weaving humor into tragedy along the way.

While queer characters are on the rise these days, it remains rare to find a story in which someone’s queerness is incidental rather than the driving force of the plot. 

In this case, playwright Donnetta Lavinia Grays manages to pull this off while simultaneously achieving something even more meaningful by crafting the queer couple as the picture of strength and stability as the more “traditional” heterosexual family spins out of control.

Ayanna Bria Bakari and Namir Smallwood in Last Night and the Night Before
Ayanna Bria Bakari, left, and Namir Smallwood in ‘Last Night and the Night Before.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

It is the levelheaded Aunt Rachel who must continuously come to her sister’s rescue. It is she and Nadima with the roof over their heads and the kitchen filled with food. It is they who appear as the picture of domestic bliss.  And as the show goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that it’s this lesbian couple who can provide the safest and most stable home for Sam. 

At a time when far-right extremists are viciously labeling LGBTQ+ people as dangers to children, this story matters. 

Rachel and Nadima are far from perfect, though. They fight, they yell, they struggle, they suffer — as all humans do. But in all of this, they bring to light questions that queer people must confront every day: What defines a parent? What about a good one? What makes a family? And what is worth giving up for love?

The Steppenwolf artist directors wrote of the show, “A good play messes with your biology — your pulse, your blood pressure, our tear ducts. It steals your breath and refuses to return it. It keeps you on the edge of your seat until it is over, and you realize you need just a moment to return to your body.”

When it comes to Last Night and the Night Before, I could not agree more.

In many ways, this show feels like poetry. The flashbacks are ethereal, the dialogue rhythmic. The hand games Sam plays throughout the story give the show a pulse, inviting the audience to identify with an 11-year-old straddling girlhood and womanhood as she deals with some far too grown-up problems. ♦

Last Night and the Night Before plays at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre through May 14.

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