Roots of Our Ancestors

Is it possible to escape the mistakes of past generations?

Opening night of Steppenwolf’s East of Eden started with a surge of emotional depth.

Can Steppenwolf escape from its past generations?

There’s been a lot of hype for this performance. Steppenwolf has a famed history with adapting Steinbeck novels and East of Eden is adapted by Frank Galati who adapted Grapes of Wrath for the Steppenwolf stage and directed by fellow ensemble member (and actor in Grapes of Wrath) Terry Kinney who also directed Of Mice and Men (acted by Gary Sinise and John Malkovich who went on to play the lead roles in the 1992 movie adaptation). This production emerged from an illustrious lineage.

There is also a beautiful color ad campaign that I know I have seen everywhere from buses, trains, to the side of my facebook page.

A lot of stops were pulled out for this show.

I’ll start by saying the two intermissions were definitely necessary. An emotional tour de force.

The first act started playfully introducing themes of Eden with Francis Guinan connecting with the audience as Sam Hamilton. Genesis underlies the play. We are all descedents of Adam and Eve and worse, Cain. When give the choice to sin, do we follow in the footsteps of our forebearers or can we escape?

Each intermission, we jump ahead years and see the evolution of the Trask family play out. The pain they cause each other tears at the audience and the line between good and evil blurs. With a family history built on pain and deception, how can the Trask brothers avoid the seemingly inescapable

Time will tell if it will live up to the legacy of Steppenwolf’s past Steinbeck classics.

Can America escape from past generations racial segregation?

Race relations (or sometimes lack there of) were touched on effectively in this adaptation. The character Lee was the Trask family’s Chinese-American servant/mentor. Stephen Park made the character dynamic and likeable while delving into the complications of racial diversity in America that resonated with today’s audience. Lee pretends with guests to not speak English and puts on an over-emphasized Chinese cultural front. But he is relaxed and himself when alone with the Trask family. It was a little shocking to see attitudes about race with one Asian character from the guests and then the Trask family and how his character dealt with the world around him. Lee seemed inducted as an honorary (almost adopted) family member, but we saw him as one of pure goodness unwarying amidst  the horrors of the others. One racial slur uttered toward Lee by Kate Arrington’s soulless character Cathy, elicited gasps of shocked horror.

Racial segregation is alive and well today. In fact, as the city of Chicago, we’re #1.

Census Race Dot Map

Census Race Dot Map

East of Eden was set 1900-1918. Which feels like a long time to us, but 100 years. We’ve both come a long way and are still stalled by the sins of the past. The scars of past take time to heal and social practices become embedded in groups. What will happen to the segregation in Chicago neighborhoods? What can we do to share experiences across neighborhood and across race?

Can art escape its own past?

I drew a case study with the image of a tree, the main set piece for East of Eden. The image varies in each frame, each iteration holds onto some of the qualities of the previous, but slightly more faded or distorted. The symbol of tree represents a family tree branching out and also “deeply rooted” beliefs at the foundation. Similarly, race relations are deeply rooted in the neighborhood culture of our neighborhoods in Chicago. But the tree can grow, change and adapt.


I started in the upper right hand corner, then the upper left I drew with my non-dominant hand, bottom left I drew with my eyes closed and bottom right I drew with the pen in my mouth. These techniques deteriorated the image until it was basically illegible. That was when I thought to add leaves. I created a stamp with a pencil eraser and put on the leaves in each frame. The leaves reinforce that is it is still a tree, but remind us that leafy trees transform throughout their leaves with the seasons. A tree is still a tree, it still has leaves, therefore, it has the ability to change.

Each tree has the power to change itself and to change its species over time. What about our species? In what ways are we actually capable of change?

In art-making, does “stealing” from or referencing other art works count as being original? Is it possible that we could cease creating original art work? Or even perhaps, is it possible to even create a fully new, completely original art work that would be understood by an audience? As I see it, progress evolves. Artistically and socially we must continue to take steps forward, but we can’t do that without having a foot behind; we evolve from the past to make progress for the future.

Go see East of Eden now until Nov. 15!


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