Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Pass Over
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Review by John Olson|

Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker
Photo by Michael Brosilow
Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which two hapless men wait aimlessly for a man named Godot who never appears, is an example of absurdist theatre. In Pass Over, now in its world premiere production at Steppenwolf, playwright Antoinette Nwandu adapts Godot's premise in an achingly naturalistic way for the first half of her play. Two young African-American men, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker), are hanging out on an inner-city street corner with nothing really to do. They're not waiting for Godot, or anyone in particular. They're waiting for a chance to "pass over" into the "promised land," a place where Moses says he will be able to "live up to my full potential," to "be all I can be."

A piece of the block and a single streetlight form Wilson Chin's simple set. The two young men are likable. Kitch, in Parker's lithely physical performance, is possibly the younger, goofier and sweeter of the two. Moses is more world weary, mature. Moses takes slight advantage of Kitch's naivete, but the two have a friendly rapport, their banter periodically interrupted by the sound of gunfire that sends them down to the ground on their bellies in defense. Is it gunfire from the police warning them to stay on their block, or gunfire from the everyday gun violence seen in inner cities? Could be either.

Pass Over moves into the realm of absurdity when a white man (Ryan Hallahan), dressed in a white suit and fedora as if he had just arrived from the American South of 70 or 80 years ago, wanders onto the set carrying a big picnic basket. Greeted warily by Moses and Kitch, the man explains that he's become lost on his way to visit his mother and did not mean to intrude. He asks to rest for a minute, and before long unpacks the cornucopia of food he'd prepared for his mother and offers to share it with the hungry Moses and Kitch who were just a few minutes earlier sharing and savoring a single pizza crust. The man (whose name is "Mister") is exceedingly polite and full of "goshes" and "gollys," appearing to mean no harm to the young men but clearly acknowledging he is out of place on this particular block. He shares just a little food, repacks the rest and goes on his way.

What unfolds from here shows Nwandu's intention is not to give us a theoretical or arty updating of Beckett's existential play, but to show how very real the challenges of survival—of "existing" in any meaningful way—are for young African-American men without means or without much reason to hope. Like Godot's Vladimir and Estragon, Moses and Kitch struggle to fill hours and simply to get through a day without being beaten up. But unlike Beckett's heroes, Nwandu's men are at a very real risk of sudden death by a gunshot wound and are trapped in this environment by an uncaring white majority, as symbolized by the clueless Mister. It's at this point we begin to understand that Pass Over is using both realism and absurdism to make a powerful piece of political theater. The three styles are seamlessly blended by director Danya Taymor and her superb cast.

The play becomes more violent and the stakes higher as it moves into the last 20 minutes of its 80-minute running time. But it may be in this middle section—with Mister's appearance and his impromptu picnic—that the playwright really challenges her audience of largely white affluent people. Are we, like Mister, guilty of benign neglect? Not appearing to have overt racist intent in our actions, but not doing anything to improve race relations or reduce economic disparities either?

Stop here to avoid spoilers (which will not really be news to those who have followed the controversy over reaction in Chicago to the play). As Pass Over moves into its final minutes, the white actor (Hallahan) returns as a policeman, threatening to shoot the men if they dare move off the block. The cop shoots and kills Moses anyway, for no apparent reason—even less than the purported reasons that were offered for the shootings of Lacquan McDonald in Chicago or Walter Scott in Charleston. Shocking, of course. Horrifying. We in the audience would not endorse that, would we? Maybe not, but Nwandu doesn't let us off the hook. Remember Mister from the earlier section of the play? Are we guilty of that sort of benign neglect? Most of us probably, yes.

In the closing moments of the play, the author wraps up another thesis for which she's been planting seeds—a theory on the nature of racism in the U.S. After shooting Moses dead, the white actor returns in his white suit and addresses the audience to assure them not to worry. "We'll clean this up," he comforts us. Things will be like they were before. He seems to be promising a return to an idyllic time in U.S. history when things were more wholesome and genteel (as suggested by the recordings of show tunes like "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "Make 'em Laugh" that accompany the pre-curtain action), or a time when people were polite like Mister seems in the middle section of the play. The implication is that whites see themselves as clean and civilized, and see blacks as dirty and messy. Let's just keep them out of sight and things will be fine again.

In her juxtaposition of such credible, realistic characters as Moses and Kitch against such clearly symbolic characters as Mister and the cop (called "Ossifer"), there can be no doubt that Nwandu is calling out white racism as the root cause of this inhumanity. Is she blaming all white people? All white cops? Maybe, maybe not, but she is uncompromising in leading a largely white audience to think about their own culpability.

Pass Over will play Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted, through July 9, 2017. For tickets or further information, call 312-335-1650 or visit