Have you heard about Pass Over? It’s a play written by Antoinette Nwandu reworking Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot that opened at Steppenwolf Theatre last week. Pass Over uses the structure of absurdist theater to explore racial oppression in America, but you’ll probably hear more about the controversy concerning woefully misguided and ignorant reviews of the production. Hopefully the polemic surrounding Pass Over will encourage more people to see the play because it does what theater, and every art form, strives to do—it makes you think in addition to feel. It challenges you.
Instead of exploring existentialism, Pass Over sets out to simulate the experience of being a young black man in America: feeling trapped, terrified, futile, and angry. Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker star as Moses and Kitch, two homeless young black men who spend each day hanging out on the street corner hoping for the opportunity to leave their block and “pass over” to a promised land where they’ll be met with opportunity and won’t live in fear of the police and constant gunfire. Hill and Parker perform flawlessly. They are funny and real. They bicker and curse at each other, talk each other up and talk each other down. There was an energy and a physicality to their relationship that was profoundly interesting to watch. Touch between the two men felt like the only way to comfort each other, and supporting each other felt like an essential aspect of their masculinity.
Director Danya Taymor uses the space in a really effective way. She has the actors bounding back and forth on the stage, hopping up to the one light post in the middle of the stage (Beckett’s iconic tree), the only vertex, just to hop back down after realizing there’s nothing to see. The stage is a tank and they are fish trapped within it. Wilson Chin’s scenic design is stark and barren. The play opens with Hill’s character sleeping on a deflated basketball in a small trash heap. Our protagonists sit on a curb beside a street light on a cement platform in the middle of a desert. They contemplate escape, but are always stopped by the need to duck down in response to the bang of a gunshot, or the arrival of a cop, played by Ryan Hallahan.
I had one profound reservation while watching Pass Over. The performance made me feel terribly uncomfortable nearly from the moment I entered the theater and even during the more humorous exchanges, but that’s appropriate. My issue rests with the book rather than the performance: does overcoming racial oppression and systemic racism and poverty feel like waiting? While I was watching Hill and Parker banter on stage and refer to the primary metaphor Nwandu constructs for them— they are Jews traipsing through the Egyptian desert— I felt like there was something untruthful. The sense of powerlessness and terror that they experience after each interaction with the two white characters in the play seemed appropriate, but to me the sense of waiting seemed false. Beckett explores nihilism and exposes the pointlessness of human existence— thus his characters wait for someone who will never show up. I just kept wondering, wouldn’t characters like Moses and Kitch feel like they were constantly climbing to no avail, rather than waiting?
I’ve been wrestling with this question for three days. And I realize how preposterous my criticism is. Moses and Kitch don’t represent people who overcome oppression. This is not a Disney movie about an athlete, musician or genius who overcame adversity. It’s a representation of what it feels like for an average person to trudge on day after day in a system that won’t change and they have no power to escape.
If you go to see Pass Over you probably won’t have find yourself wrestling with the criticism I had, but find another fault that didn’t bother me. It’s not a perfect play. It’s not neatly drawn, but more of a fiery, provocative mess. Ryan Hallahan plays the other two characters in the drama, a cop and a white man named Master, with creepy aplomb. Master is a hyperbolic symbol of white oppression— he appears outwardly clueless and unaware of Moses and Kitch’s situation, but inwardly he seems like the snake in the garden of Eden, only giving of his bounty as a method of reinforcing his position of superiority and control. Taymor has Hallahan entering and exiting from underneath the stage and then suddenly from the audience. He feels like a phantom devil, popping up unexpectedly, a formidable literary villain like Alec D’Urberville. Master shares a meal with Moses and Kitch in an ungodly uncomfortable and allegorically rich scene. I kept thinking about policies and practices that seem like a good idea, but are like giving a hungry person food instead of allowing them to get their own.
The primary biblical allusion that Moses and Kitch were like the Jews being oppressed by the Egyptians felt a bit heavy handed at times. Other allusions weren’t repeated as much and felt more powerful. The Rodgers and Hammerstein music playing at various moments throughout the performance upending the American dream, a notion whitewashed and inaccessible to the main characters of this play, felt like a really sick joke.
The Steppenwolf production of Pass Over did an excellent job of portraying Anywhere, U.S.A. This wasn’t a play about Chicago. Instead, it’s a play about the black urban poor all over America, including Chicago. We live in a city with a theatrical community that tackles current issues, opening a space for meaningful conversation. I walked out of Steppenwolf thinking about how we as a society empower and how we oppress, what role government plays in this, and what free and equal opportunity really looks like.
See Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre Tuesdays – Sundays until July 9. Tickets range between $20 and $50.
Related article: For a different take on Godot, see our review of Tympanic Theatre’s Waiting for Godot set on the U.S.-Mexican border.