BWW Review: PASS OVER at Steppenwolf
Both beautiful and necessarily brutal, Antoinette Nwandu's PASS OVER is a play that's entirely essential to this moment.
In this world premiere at Steppenwolf, Nwandu shows us what happens to two young Black men confined to one city block, who hope to escape to an elusive "Promised Land." Though Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) dream of the Land of Milk and Honey, they remain trapped. As with Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT, on which PASS OVER riffs, Moses and Kitch are bored. But they're not just bored: they're in constant danger, fighting for survival in each moment. We see this as they dive down to the ground at the sound of gunshots, a repeated and hauntingly realistic occurrence in the play. And we see this too in the white interlopers that invade their space-the posh, anachronistic "Mister" and a police officer, both played by Ryan Hallahan. Moses and Kitch wish to escape the block, but the presence of these white authorities gives us the all-too-real sense that even if they do, they'll remain stuck in other ways.
While PASS OVER is necessarily bleak, Nwandu infuses a great deal of humor into the piece and her use of language is stunning and lyrical. For after all, humor is a strong defense mechanism. Above all, Moses and Kitch's conversations have an immense poetic beauty to them, even if their language is sometimes coarse. As with Beckett's GODOT, Nwandu also uses repeated phrasing to emphasize the monotony of the characters' lives. And while she has written a commanding piece, a tonal shift towards the play's end seemed at odds with the rest of the material.
The performances in PASS OVER are bone chilling. Under the direction of Danya Taymor, Hill and Parker find a dynamic and natural rhythm. The two actors have a natural rapport, and though we don't see their full back stories, they convey that the roots of their friendship are deep. They joke around and tease one another. But they also dream of the Promised Land and the wishes they hope will be fulfilled once they arrive there. That makes it all the more jarring when Mister enters, brilliantly essayed by Hallahan. In every moment of the play in which he appears as either Mister or the cop, Hallahan's presence is entirely discomfiting. Decked out in a cream suit (costume designs by Dede Ayite) and carrying a wicker picnic basket, Hallahan's Mister upsets Hill and Parker's order with his dissonant language and his catchphrase "Gosh, golly, gee." In the case of PASS OVER, it is the white man who is at odds with his surroundings.
Moses and Kitch, of course, also worry about the presence of cops, and when Hallahan appears in that role, they once again immediately fall to the ground. As the cop, Hallahan gives audiences absolutely no reason to empathize-he made me want to scream with his emotionless, rigid delivery. But that is precisely what PASS OVER demands.
The design elements in PASS OVER fully entrench us in Moses and Kitch's world. Wilson Chin's sparse set design makes complete dramaturgical sense. The space is mostly barren, and the stage is surrounded by sand, suggesting the desert that needs to be crossed en route to the Promised Land. Ray Nardelli's sound design and original music are inspired and add another dimension to the production. Audiences enter the performance to the sounds of classic show tunes, including "June Is Busting Out All Over" and "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" (which makes a surprising and spot-on reappearance later in the play). These cheery songs contrast with the gunshots that frequently ring out during the play itself and also serve as a reminder that this sunny outlook is not the reality for Moses and Kitch.
PASS OVER commands that we see Moses and Kitch, two young Black men, not as headlines or tropes, but as people. Nwandu does not allow us to ignore these two men, who would so often be overlooked by society. PASS OVER is filled to the brim with naked truths about the reality of life as a young Black man in an urban area, and that is exactly why this play demands to be viewed. Brilliantly written at every turn with some of the most rhythmical language I've heard and a topicality that cannot be denied, PASS OVER should be on every theatergoer's "must see" list this summer.
PASS OVER plays the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf, 1650 North Halsted, through July 9. Tickets are $20-$89. For more information, visit Steppenwolf.org.
Photo by Michael Brosilow