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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

honest conclusion.

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.

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