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Pass Over Is #1-10 Of My ‘Promised Land Top Ten’

“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.

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