Nwandu’s Pass Over Promises a Hope Beyond the Endgame
Preparing to write this review before heading to see Pass Over at Steppenwolf’s third
floor stage left me feeling a tinge of worry. As I’m sure many know, there have been an
onslaught of thoughts, opinions, and politics surrounding this show. Though daunting, this, to
me, was only a sign of a play’s effectiveness. So, going in, I settled down into Steppenwolf
seats and began to try to eliminate the mounting list of expectations in my head.
What I saw exceeded them all.
Antoinette Nwandu delivers an excellent, acutely written, and relevant re-imagining of
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Instead of Estragon and Vladimir, we meet Moses (Jon
Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker), two young black men living on a street corner mimicking
that of a Chicago neighborhood. Much like their older, white counterparts, Moses and Kitch are
unable to leave this street corner, the bare tree on the familiar country road replaced by a
lamppost. To pass the time, they partake in all kinds of distractions, whether it be making one
another laugh, arguing, or discussing and listing the things that they miss from the “promised
land,” which lies beyond the corner to which they are confined.
The chemistry between Hill and Parker is phenomenal. Parker’s Kitch is full of odd
eccentricities that never cease to surprise, yet consistently builds a tender, hilarious, and
concrete character. Hill’s Moses is a little more serious, (albeit incredibly adept in the power of
humor and surprise as well) and acts as the leader of the two. They carry on this way, cycling
through the motions of idleness, while intermittently interrupted by jarring, unexpected gunshots
from the Chicago Police. These shots conveniently halt the two from simply just leaving the
corner to go the promised land, accurately reflecting the often impossible circumstances African
Americans must face when trying to move on from the cycle of oppression.
The two are eventually visited throughout by a character called Mister (but poignantly
pronounced “Master” on stage) and Ossifer (poignantly dressed in a Chicago Police uniform),
both of which are played by a sinister Ryan Hallahan, who is both threatening, creepy, and
inviting. Dressed in Dede Ayite’s all-white plantation-esque suit, Mister is a representation of the
smiling facade of a system built on slavery that insists on maintaining slavery-era values. The
performances of this show, for a young actor like myself, are beyond inspiring. They are done
with incredible grace, challenge, and a level of engagement that drives through to the end.
Wilson Chin’s set design is relevant and sleek- portraying the regular elements of a
Chicago street corner perched atop a panel of dune-like sand, which blended nicely with
Nwandu’s references to the Bible, specifically Exodus, and Moses’ role in leading people out of
the desert. Ray Nardelli’s sound design is nothing less than jolting, much like the play it
beautifully serves, leading me, a more nervous, jittery audience member, to jump at sudden
gunshots or electrical buzzes. Marcus Doshi’s lighting design stuns at the play’s startling and
I was left feeling perfectly destroyed. This is why I go. Sometimes, I fantasize about a
flood. It often feels as if all I can do is watch from my safe northside apartment, covering my
eyes to hide from the slaughter of southside citizens as I scour my computer screen for any kind
of good between the bad news. I wrote about a flood because it seemed that the only thing we
need is something to wipe us out, or keep us in-house until we get our one, connected, human
life together. Pass Over struck me not only because it was scathingly honest, but also because I
think Nwandu and I share the same sentiment. We need blood-rain. We need a plague. We
need some real change, and it isn’t going to have an intermission, be easy to watch, or make
sense to all of us. But, we have to get through it to see results. Some of us are so lucky to only
have to see theatre about it, versus experiencing it in their own, typically untouched, white
neighborhoods and lives.
I write all of this, gushing about this play (that had me in tears I didn’t know were there
until the curtain call), while also trying to ignore the negative perceptions that have risen in
response to this piece. And, it seems, that I cannot. I cannot because Nwandu writes a play that
perfectly calls out the racist system that continues to oppress fellow Chicagoans and Americans
daily. And I mean system - she uses Beckett’s absurdist style of repetition to such an intelligent
political advantage that updates a post-war classic in a way that will hopefully move us into a
post-war of our own. Right now things seem warlike and hopeless, because, in a way, they are.
But what better opportunity for a play; whether it’s writing it, performing it, designing it, seeing it,
or defending it. I, personally, do not go see theatre to sleep or ignore the very intentional
message a work of art sends its audience, no matter how comfortable the seats, nor how
uncomfortable the truth. Pass Over does exactly that job because not only does it call out our
racist governmental system, but surprisingly calls out the racism that had been tolerated in a
system of our own, the Chicago theatre circuit, which seems to have fallen into camps of various
levels of inclusion and exclusion, both accurate representation and inaccurate representation.
Much of our Chicago is trying desperately to rise from a corner of its own. Nwandu’s play
startles and shakes, stirring up in myself an urgency to listen more, reminding me and my
community at large that there is no such thing as enough listening. For when we stop listening,
we are perpetrating. For when we stop seeing shows that are different than us, we are killing.
Much like our police force. Much like some newspapers, who have overlooked the artistic
elements of the work in order to imbue a political opinion that does harm to a struggling
community, ignoring authorial intent . We have to get our house in order. And we need to listen
to people like Moses and Kitch, on corners uncomfortably unfamiliar to those who do not reside
on them, to show us how to take steps to a promised land.
Liv Shine is a graduate of Senn Arts High School and proud member of The Yard. She was last seen in Snack Break at Victory Gardens theatre and Dry Land with Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. Her Yard credits include I and You with Jackalope and the Theatre on the Lake remount, The 4th Graders Present An Unnamed Love Suicide with The Hypocrites. Liv is a three-year member of Steppenwolf Theatre’s Young Adult Council and a two-year member of American Theater Company’s Youth Ensemble, where she was last seen in Greensboro: A Requiem. Liv is currently studying for her acting BFA at The Theatre School at DePaul University and will be a sophomore this fall. Liv is represented by Paonessa Talent.