True West: With a Reimagined Revival, a Classic Sam Shepard Play Reminds Us That We, Too, Are America

Jon Michael Hill as Austin (left) and Namir Smallwood as Lee in the Steppenwolf Theatre’s revival of True West.
Photo: Michael Brosilow (Steppenwolf Theatre)

“It’s a very universal story. It’s a play about brothers,” says actor Namir Smallwood when asked about his role in True West, Sam Shepard’s classic play about toxic sibling rivalry, now in production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Despite the universally relatable theme, there is something distinctly different about this critically acclaimed revival; it’s the first production authorized by Shepard’s estate that doesn’t feature white men as its two leading characters.

“I think it’s funny, because this play has been in existence for about 40 years, and has been done the same way for 40 years up until now,” says Smallwood, in conversation with The Root. He goes on to note that the play—which has, in at least one point in its history, even been staged with its actors switching roles mid-performance—could’ve just as easily been produced with other races. But, Smallwood simply asks, rhetorically:

“Why so long? You don’t think that black people could live on the desert?”

For those unfamiliar with the plot, True West introduces us to estranged brothers Austin and Lee, who find themselves in a contentious and ultimately catastrophic reunion while housesitting their mother’s Arizona home. There, seemingly straight-laced, often neurotic screenwriter Austin (played by Jon Michael Hill) is attempting to finish and hopefully sell a screenplay when his plans are disrupted by his drifter—and grifter—big brother Lee (Smallwood), an often menacing free spirit with ambitions of his own. It’s a predominantly two-man play laced with class issues, not-so-friendly competition and an undercurrent of tension that builds to an explosive climax.

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Though nothing in the script—including the play’s early ’80s timeframe—has been changed, in the hands of director Randall Arney, Steppenwolf ensemble members Hill, Smallwood and supporting actors Francis Guinan and Chicago stage favorite Jacqueline Williams, True West also becomes a study of respectability politics, socioeconomics, code-switching, survivor’s remorse, and, in particular, the unique challenges of black masculinity. The resulting subtext is so charged, one can’t help but wish that celebrated actor-playwright Shepard, who died in 2017 at age 73, were present to hear how his words now resonate in other, more marginalized mouths.

In fact, despite the play’s extensive history, at times, it was difficult to imagine certain lines—like those that reference Al Jolson and sticking out “like a sore thumb” in the privileged (read: predominantly white) Arizona community—landing as pointedly between white men as they do between Hill and Smallwood.

“That’s what I really love about [Shepard’s] work,” Hill tells The Root. “Some of the best playwrights find a way to make it completely specific to these characters—and at the same time, have the room for it to be universal.”

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Interestingly enough, True West is the production that put the now world-renowned Steppenwolf on the map in 1982, when company co-founder Gary Sinise (yes, that Gary Sinise) garnered the rights to Shepard’s play. Initially produced with co-founder Jeff Perry (also known as Scandal’s Cyrus Beene) and John Malkovich (yes, that John Malkovich) in the respective roles of Austin and Lee, the production ultimately made its way to Broadway, with Sinise assuming the role of Austin, as well as directing. The success of the extended run drew instant acclaim to the Steppenwolf, cementing its now-decadeslong reputation for producing daring, actor-focused theater—and cementing Sinise and Malkovich’s performances as the seminal interpretation of True West’s two equally conflicted leads.

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Despite breaking new ground as the first actors of color to perform the roles in a professionally mounted production, it’s reductive to suggest the casting of Hill and Smallwood in True West is merely a novelty or stunt, or to compare their performances to those of Sinise and Malkovich (as some critics have unfortunately been prone to do). While more diverse casting may have been a goal for the Steppenwolf in reviving this narrative for contemporary audiences (and refreshingly so), there is nothing “colorblind” about this rendering, which instead introduces a never articulated but nevertheless omnipresent new dynamic for both actors and audience.

“We didn’t have to do anything extra with those lines,” says Hill. “We just say them as honestly as you would any other and let it be in the room—and the audience picks up what they pick up.”

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It’s also worth noting that Hill and Smallwood never auditioned for the roles of Austin and Lee but were handpicked for their already proven chemistry. Having starred together in the 2017 production of Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over (a play based on Waiting for Godot, filmed by no less than Spike Lee and eventually screened at Sundance), Steppenwolf was eager to once again capitalize upon the duo’s interplay—though they didn’t immediately assign them roles. In fact, it was Shepard’s estate that ultimately decided Hill should play Austin while Smallwood took on Lee. Both actors say it wouldn’t have made a difference in which roles they were cast.

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“I said yes because Jon said yes,” Smallwood chuckled during a multigenerational discussion of the production Monday night. Onstage, he was joined by Hill, Perry, and veteran ensemble member Guinan, who reprises the role of slightly smarmy film producer Saul, the same catalytic force in the brothers’ seething conflict that Guinan played in the 1982 production.

But while Guinan brings a more evolved, aware presence to a familiar role, Smallwood tells The Root his own tightly coiled spring of a performance was a deliberate departure from what longtime Steppenwolf devotees may have been expecting.

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“This role has really been done the same way for 37 years, thanks to John Malkovich...everybody who’s ever done Lee before is just wild and just crazy—just do everything you can. John Malkovich scared people; he scared the crap out of people...and people loved it!

“I don’t have that luxury, being in the skin I’m in,” Smallwood concedes, referencing the riskier physical aspects of Malkovich’s interpretation. “I can’t be wild and crazy and uncontrolled...so, there’s a lot of awareness of this controlled chaos.”

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There’s still plenty of chaos to be experienced in Steppenwolf’s revival, but for those paying attention, Smallwood’s simmering performance is perhaps even more terrifying as he uses the play’s quieter moments to keep the audience anticipating if, when and how Lee might strike.

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Though initially benign, equally dangerous is Hill’s portrayal of the repressed Austin, barely hiding his rage beneath respectability. The brothers’ building tension becomes both a pas de deux and a double-edged sword, since, in interpreting a narrative likely never intended for black actors, Hill and Smallwood’s presence, combined with the violence already written into Shepard’s script, inevitably adds a deeply loaded layer of subtext to an already charged atmosphere. For some viewers, the inherent biases that arise may threaten to overshadow the nuances of the brothers’ tension, but as both actors repeatedly note, Lee and Austin’s conflicts are universal.

Though interviewed separately, Hill and Smallwood each used the term “outliers” while describing their characters; fittingly so, as there are ultimately no victims or villains in Shepard’s very human narrative.

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“I think Lee’s struggle is basically being left alone. He’s an outlier in the sense that he doesn’t fit in; he doesn’t fit in racially, he doesn’t fit in economically...he doesn’t fit any of that,” Smallwood says. “His struggle is basically trying to find who he is within the confines of [so-called civilized] life—but also to find himself.”

In contrast, Hill believes Austin’s outlier story is ironically also one of assimilation. “It does make me think how you get educated, and sometimes, if you’re not diligent, it sets you apart from a lot of your peers in the black community. It’s unfortunate but it’s a truth, and definitely, I think in the ’80s that it was prevalent,” he offers. “I think these guys are both outliers; they’re feeling outside of something. I think Austin, in our cast, would feel outside of his community, and as much as he may be embarrassed at his brother’s appearance and persona and how violent he is, he also feels an extreme amount of guilt that he was the one that was the golden child.”

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It’s a tale as old as time—or at least as old as the tale of Cain and Abel, about which Smallwood quips, “That’s a story that’s been told for hundreds of thousands of years. Do you really think that they were white?”

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White, black or otherwise, there is an opportunity for audiences to see themselves—and their own conflicted natures—in True West.

“Come see the show, and just enjoy the wild ride and listen to the story of it,” Smallwood advises. “Forget about the fact that we’re black...just listen to the story, because these brothers are the way they are for a reason. And if you listen, you will understand why they are the way they are.

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“We’re trying to make something new, fresh and different,” he says of the Steppenwolf’s latest contribution to True West’s history, adding, “just like they did 37 years ago.”

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True West is in production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre through August 25. Tickets are available here.

Updated: 8/8/19, 10:35 p.m., ET: Thanks to one of our theater-loving readers, it has been brought to our attention that Steppenwolf isn’t the first theater to experiment with black actors performing the roles of Austin and Lee. That distinction likely belongs to Chicago’s Congo Square Theater, which, as part of a 2006 co-production of True West and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog with American Theatre Company’s American Classic Repertory, performed several versions where the two casts switched, effectively flipping the racial dynamics of each play. An earlier version of this article stated that Steppenwolf’s is the first to be performed by black leads; it has since been amended to reflect that Steppenwolf’s is the first to be produced in conjunction with Shepard’s estate with exclusively black leads.

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Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.