Privilege, especially of the white heteronormative kind, appears to be the ongoing thread of discussion for Steppenwolf this year. Until now they’ve mostly had plays about straight white men bemoaning their declining cultural significance. Pass Over, the daring new play by the talented upcoming playwright, Antoinette Nwandu, is a risky change of programming for this company.
The play makes a strong statement in line with the “Black Lives Matter” movement about racial inequality including themes of gun violence, poverty, lack of opportunities, discrimination by the police, and white privilege. Usually, abstract plays with such blunt messages are more likely to be presented at one of the many small storefront theatres in Chicago.
It presents a challenge of context to a subscriber base made up mostly of elderly affluent white people. Are these audience members, whose lives are so removed from the bleak realities of poor minority neighborhoods, able to truly grasp the discrimination the character’s face? Will they remain complacent in the violence by shrugging off issues that don’t affect them personally? Will they be turned off by the angry depictions of white police officers?
Pass Over is penned by Nwandu as “a provocative riff” on Samuel Beckett’s 1953 absurdist classic, Waiting for Godot, a piece which served as an apt metaphor about the insignificance of human existence. I’ve personally found Godot far more intriguing discussed in a classroom than seen on stage. Those with insomnia will find a good way to nap trying to make through an entire production. The play’s very shortage of dramatic tension is why it’s often referred to with another title, Waiting for Something Good to Happen.
Thankfully, Pass Over and Godot are only similar in the construct of an absurdist play wherein the main characters are waiting around. The comparisons stop there. Where Beckett’s play lacked stimulating conflict, Nwandu’s play is chock full of danger. Here, the very act of just “waiting around” is itself a deadly action – one that is sadly far too real for so many young black lives in Chicago.
The abstract plot consists of two young black men, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker), who spend their time on a dilapidating street corner conversing about a mix of topics ranging from religion to masochism. They talk of their own promised land and dream of life beyond the violent landscape. The talk also becomes infused with their own goofy personas, a silliness that masks the actual sense of the perilous danger. Every so often gunfire will erupt forcing them to duck for cover forcing them back to reality in a deadly cycle that never ceases.
As the two converse, a young white man suddenly wanders in from the horizon. His name is Mister (Ryan Hallahan), and he brings a large picnic basket filled with foods for his mother. He’s somehow got lost on the way and ended up in the hood by mistake. Unlike Moses and Kitch who have their own language of common street talk, Mister speaks with the “gosh darn” talk that only a naive privileged upbringing can bring about – the writer’s way of further demonstrating our deep cultural divides along racial and economic lines. Mister shares his food with the two men. As they converse a few racially insensitive remarks spew forth from Mister, highlighting his ignorance.
After Mister leaves, Moses and Kitch get a sense of a life outside their current hell and they deepen their debates about the meaning and hopelessness of their lives. Whenever the talk turns of their time to “pass over” they are forced to stay in place by the entrance of a creepy, brutal white policeman (also Ryan Hallahan). The officer lines the men up, pats them down, and reminds them, with a gun in tow, that they have no control over their lives. Prevented from leaving to build a better life and reminded of their worthlessness by the officer their anger builds to a boiling point.
As new plays go, Pass Over is in really good shape overall. It has a reason to exist, an important message to tell, it has a strong viewpoint, the stakes are high, there’s a mix of humor and seriousness, the characters are interesting and full of humanity, and the show itself provokes some important discussions. Even better, Nwandu’s play is only 80 minutes long (unheard of for new works).
That said, Pass Over, though promising, is still a work in progress. The most problematic part is the last 15 to 20 minutes, where Nwandu’s play starts to meander from its central humanity, and everything seems to be jarringly out of place. The genre veers off from absurdism into the realm of performance art. The script switches from offering us subtle inspections of racial divides to a far-too-obvious lecture. And the characters themselves stop seeming like real people we can connect with and turn into symbolic cardboard cutouts for the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Look, I was all on board with the absurdist plot points. Have some ignorant young white guy appear out of nowhere, like a Field of Dreams moment, sure; I can accept that. But suddenly having a random artsy sequence at the very end, which among other things, has the police officer-turned-devil begin to literally foam black vomit from his mouth, while Moses looks straight out in the audience and screams, “STOP KILLING US”… It’s too much, no matter how well intended. This piece is too intelligent to have it get dumbed down in such literal ways at the very end.
The last third of this play came off looking like a grad student’s thesis art project: over-thought, too literal, and self-evident. It’s not pretentious though, mostly because the underlying anger is totally justifiable in this instance. But, there are more effective ways to get the point across. I’ve always found that the best way to effect change from an audience is to hit the messages home through the heart instead of beating them over the head with it. Get us emotionally invested in these characters, let us see their humanity so we can understand and sympathize with their plights and feel the anger at such an unjust system.
I do need to point out that this production was directed by Danya Tamyor – if the name sounds familiar it’s because she’s the niece of the famous visual director Julie Taymor (most famous for putting Lion King on stage). The younger Taymor seems to have gotten much of the artistic conceptualizing from her aunt, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the last third of this production were a directorial stylistic choice instead of anything written by the playwright.
As many readers are no doubt already aware, there has been an intense debate in the community stemming from a racially tone deaf, and completely insensitive, critique (commentary really) made by a certain influential critic that attended an earlier press performance. I cannot pretend to be ignorant of the fact that a fellow journalist chose, as this person has many times in the past, to base their judgment of a play off their prejudices rather than on the actual values of the play itself.
While I feel that outside context is sometimes needed from a critic to enhance our understanding, we also must take into account viewpoints of those outside ourselves, something this particular critic has failed to do on numerous occasions. I’ve not always agreed with the message of every play I’ve seen either, I have particularly hard time with those that advocate against monogamy, but it’s not my job to bash it for not living up to my viewpoints. Having an open mind is crucial to anyone that evaluates the arts.
If anything, this controversy gives context (see what I did there?) to Pass Over itself. It proves that discrimination passes down belief systems like an unseen plague. The statements by this critic show us the exact kind of privileged unspoken racism that Nwandu so eloquently writes about in her play. It’s why this play is so important and why you should see it despite an uneven ending.
Bottom Line: Pass Over is recommended.
PASS OVER – Steppenwolf Theatre
Running Time: 80 minutes, there is no intermission
Location: Steppenwolf (Upstairs Theatre), 1650 N Halsted St, Chicago IL 60614
Runs through: July 9, 2017
Tickets: $20 – $89 and can be purchased online or by calling the Steppenwolf Audience Services Box Office at 312-335-1650
Discounted Tickets: There are a limited number of $30 seats for all performances located in the first two rows of the theatre with code “CLOSEUP”. Ask Box Office about student tickets ($15), $20 Cultural Industry Nights, and Group tickets.
Curtain Times: *Tuesdays – Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM & 7:30 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM. *There will be no performances on Tuesday, July 4
Performances for People with Disabilities: There are a few performances during the run that will contain an Audio Description, American Sign Language Interpretations, and Open Captioning. For more information, please visit the Steppenwolf Accessibility Page for specific dates.
Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow