“Promised Land top ten...go!” bounces off of the concrete of “the block” like an aimless
affirmation in Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre. This is a game
Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) turn to in escape of their bullet
strewn, street corner bound reality of static poverty forced upon them by...well...the
holders of the promised land they preach of passing over to. In the game, they list the
top ten things they currently envision in their own promised lands.
We’ll get there. But I thought I’d give it a go.
Promised Land Top Ten....Go!
#1. Moses and Kitch’s Bromance
No doubt accredited to their closeness to this work of fiction and theatrical flex, Jon
Michael Hill and Julian Parker deliver exhilarating performances as Moses and Kitch
respectively. Hill’s Moses puffs his chest, sags his pants, and is the man with the plan.
Parker’s Hitch is a voice of energy, hope, and light that is hard to uncover in a black
male character onstage (especially while wielding a long towel between his legs in
phallic symbol). Supplying each other with their chants of “Pass over,” the relationship
built between these characters is one of mutualism that communities of color find
themselves clinging onto all too often. This cast picks up the poetic musicality of
Nwandu’s language and lilt with a vulnerability and strength that pops red hot and sings
grace when it needs to. There is never a dull moment. Ryan Hallahan frighteningly
embodies the only two white characters in the play that probe at the block’s livelihood
and quickly collects the title of the perfect antagonist. No better crew to carry this flag.
#2. Danya Taymor’s Vision
Talk about a holistic theatrical experience and Pass Over falls from your lips as easily
as ‘nigga’ does from mouths that are still searching for the meaning of the pain it
carries. Taymor perfectly calculates the back and forth of ambition and oppressive
psyche that prohibits the men from stepping off of their block and pulls out every stop to
tip that scale whenever the safety of their zeal falters. The audience experiences each
extreme as heavily as he does (and as best as a mostly white liberal audience can
being unfamiliar with the presented circumstances.)
#3. Wilson Chin’s Set
Wilson Chin’s set tackles the tedious tiering of “the block”. A slab of concrete sits on a
larger slab of asphalt, littered with scraps, trash, and discarded objects. The entire
plateau is surrounded by light sand offstage, a place our protagonists have been afraid
to step into since pre-show. There is a street lamp on the corner, larger than life and
looming over the men and their musings. It flickers every now and then like the resolve
of the bodies onstage. Which leads me to...
#4. Marcus Doshi’s Lighting
Marcus Doshi’s work compliments the through line of the play with an eerie lighting
design. He builds a vocabulary that further blurs the lines between what is real and what
could be imagined apparitions of experience. For instance, a tinted cold wash at every
gunshot proves that its most important function might have been establishing a mental
state of the characters outside of the physical reality.
#5-10. Perspective. Perspective. Perspective. Perspective. And perspective.
Like it wasn’t enough of a boss move to shift the perspective of Godot onto the black
male experience in America with justice, reparations, peace, civil rights, humanity, the
pursuit of happiness and the likes circling them just like their stagnant existence (deep
breath)—she presents it in a perspective that clearly shook a few out there. A
perspective that I have yet to see go to that length onstage. There are plenty of writers
of color that have put their stories under a microscope in the name of this craft, but few
have done so in a way that dares to remove the filter that affords us deniability in the
face of offense should it arise. Numbers 1-4 of this list are bound by nothing if not their
loyalty to serving the vision of and from the young black man’s epic existence today.
Nwandu’s words paired with Danya Taymor’s direction unapologetically litter
Steppenwolf’s stage with imagery and language (of pro-blackness, anti-police, etc) that
does not give you the chance to ignore the pressing matter that is the bodies onstage
and the obstacles they encounter before and after the curtain. Nwandu has bestowed
upon us a hell with all of its demons, even if they look like us—whatever we may look
like and whichever side of the block we find ourselves on. She gives us Moses’ hell of
white demons with badges, weapons, tweed suits, and everything he doesn’t have.
They all got to the promised land before he could. This is quite literal as a cop’s hat and
badge and one (attempted) murder weapon were thrown into the sand before Moses
jumps into it and is killed by Master (chilling Hallahan) with two shots that have been
haunting him throughout the play. In criticizing the simple concept of the dream of these
black men, Nwandu also criticizes the content. When Master gives a closing monologue
about how “great” it is to own what is yours again after giving Moses the two shots that
have been taunting him throughout the show, I couldn’t help but play Promised Land
Top Ten on my way out. But this time, careful that the vision was one of no connection
to many Moses’ hell—and all my own—before I plunged in.
IREON ROACH is a recent graduate of Senn Arts High School and will be attending Boston University in the fall. Company and board member of The Yard Theater Company, she was last seen in The Yard & Jackalope Theater Company’s Blood at the Root. She’s appeared in Rivendell Theatre Ensemble's Dry Land, Milk Like Sugar with The Yard & Raven Theatre, How We Got On with Haven Theatre. She is your
2016 and 2017 Louder Than A Bomb Chicago Indy Poet Finalist and 2016 National August Wilson Monologue Competition finalist. Ireon belongs to Writers Theatre Youth Council and American Theater Company Youth Ensemble where she is currently working on The Project(s) by PJ Paparelli abridged by Jess McCleod and Sarah Slight. Ireon is represented by Paonessa Talent.