Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through July 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
In an interview in the program for the world premiere of “Pass Over” in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, playwright Antoinette Nwandu says she was inspired not only by the terrible toll violence is taking on young black men and the experiences of her students at an urban community college, but also by the basics of the biblical Exodus story—the notion of a chosen people passing over into the Promised Land—and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
Starting with an ironic prelude of happy songs from classic American musicals, she melds these influences in a most provocative way in the 80-minute play, and the results—especially the violent ending—have created a lot of controversy among viewers and reviewers. What most agree on, though, is that the acting is extraordinary.
Under Danya Taymor’s spare direction, Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker play Moses and Kitch, two homeboys who spend their nights on a broad stretch of asphalt under a streetlight shooting the breeze, playing games, roughhousing, and fantasizing about a better life while waiting for something to happen that will allow them to get off that block—and dodging bullets all the while. Moses, a fierce and angry Hill, is the alpha male, while Parker, a brilliant physical comedian, is the more open and ingratiating Kitch, who amuses them by imitating upper-class accents and musing of posh food.
Their patois is an intense mix of profanity and poetry that may at first sound like a foreign language to those who aren’t familiar with it, but it isn’t all that difficult to adjust, and a few terms—such as the baby talk-ish “po po” for the police—are explained along the way.
The appearance of a stranger is the occasion for this explanation. Dressed in an ice-cream-colored suit and bearing a huge picnic basket, he is Mister (Ryan Hallahan)–but occasionally slips, calling himself “Master”–and says he got lost on the way to visit his mother. Using expressions like “golly, gosh, gee,” he asks to sit down to rest his feet and share the food in his basket, which is jam-packed with everything the men could want, including the “collard greens and pinto beans” that are Moses’ first choice in his imagined Promised Land. Moses is suspicious but won over by hunger and Kitch’s eagerness to partake of the feast; however, a note of tension enters the conversation because of Mister’s erratic comments, and he packs up and leaves hurriedly.
When Mister appears again, he acts shockingly entitled—an indictment of the powers that be or of all white people, it isn’t completely clear. The only other character is Ossifer (Hallahan), the brutal white police officer who menaces and humiliates Moses and Kitch and apparently keeps them from leaving.
Despite superficial resemblances to “Waiting for Godot,” Nwandu is up to something very different. Beckett uses this two old hobos, Vladimir and Estragon, and the master-and-slave Pozzo and Lucky who pass their way, to illuminate the universal human condition. The situation is bleak but not without a shred of hope, as Didi and Gogo go on from day to day.
Nwandu’s blatantly political work is about a very specific group of men she sees as victims of outside forces. Their daily lives are as empty and meaningless as Didi and Gogo’s, but the implication is that it wouldn’t be that way if they had a chance. In fact, they do have a moment of freedom and hope when Ossifer is vanquished by one of Moses’ plagues, but it ends in a most conclusive, frightening way.
I suspect that some segment of Steppenwolf’s audience will find “Pass Over” hard to take, and that virtually all of us wish that the situation weren’t as bad as Nwandu envisions. Thanks to the performances of Hill and Parker—and the striking scenic design by Wilson Chin and lighting by Marcus Doshi that highlights the actors–I left the theater thinking that there has got to be a way to bridge the gap caused by racism and to prevent so many lives from being wasted.