"Pass Over" at Steppenwolf Theatre

4 out of 4 stars

Antoinette Nwandu’s world premiere production of Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre is a true gift to not only our theatre community, but also to Chicago as a whole.  Directed by Danya Taymor, Pass Over utilizes the classic text of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to call attention to the dangerous cycle of racism, violence, and poverty affecting young Black men in our country today.  Nwandu shows no fear nor hesitation when it comes to presenting her audience with the harsh realities of lives they may never have the opportunity to encounter in any other way.  It is through her bold, provocative writing that one can begin to see hope for a future that may finally break this vicious cycle. The more our communities are faced head-on with this trauma and honesty, the brighter our future can become as we all finally take the time to reflect on the harsh effects of our actions and ultimately incite change in ourselves and in our world.

The ability to transform a classic text into one that is so culturally relevant and current is an impressive skill and one which shows a true gift for language.  Antoinette Nwandu has solidified herself as one of the most important voices in playwriting today with this production of Pass Over.  From the way she infused colloquial language with raw emotion to create hard-hitting poetic riffs to her use of subtle symbolism to further drive home the theme of the American dream not actually being open to every American, Nwandu has crafted exactly the type of fearless text our society needs to encounter.  One particularly brilliant moment of her genius symbolism was when the white male police officer character, Ossifer, (played by Ryan Hallahan) steals an apple pie from the play’s main characters, Moses (played by Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (played by Julian Parker).  Both Moses and Kitch were looking forward to savoring that apple pie after everything they had been through just to get to that point, and just when it seems that maybe they can have their own slice of the “American Dream,” Ossifer takes it out from under them.  As apple pie is known as a symbolic American food, audience members are hit hard with the visual of two young men’s dreams literally being taken from them for no reason other than it can be done.  Nwandu’s production is filled with haunting moments such as this, which will hopefully shake audience members to their core and help them to see that what many of us imagine as a wonderful dream actually comes to many as a horrific nightmare.

Nwandu’s brilliant text is interpreted and exceptionally performed by the production’s three person cast.  Jon Michael Hill, a Steppenwolf ensemble member since 2007, portrays Moses, who falls into more of a leadership role in his friendship with Kitch, actor Julian Parker.  Hill’s acting is nothing short of inspirational as he creates a bold, brave character who teaches audience members the power of the human spirit to persevere no matter the uncertainty of our future.  Through Hill’s character, Moses, we are taught that sometimes even the bravest among us are suffering but that no matter how great their own suffering, goodness can still rise from those the system may often deem as a lost cause.  Julian Parker’s portrayal of Kitch is an outstanding one, as he manages to bring both humor and raw, serious emotion to the stage.  Though Kitch is noticeably more playful than Moses, he also experiences pain, fear, and heartbreak throughout his life.  Parker’s ability to switch between comedy and tragic pain is highly commendable and demonstrates his endless capabilities as an actor.  Hill and Parker perfectly embody these two characters and bring to the stage a story of two young men just trying to survive another day that will unfortunately feel all too familiar to so many within our community.  Their talent is sure to inspire and bring about change as they give voice to those often ignored the most.  Ryan Hallahan gives a haunting performance as both Mister and Ossifer, as his sharp contrast to Moses and Kitch proves to be one of the most terrifying and upsetting aspects of this production.  He brilliantly portrays the parts of both our society and ourselves which many of us are afraid to acknowledge or are simply oblivious to the impact of.  Hallahan’s unsettling performance left the house quiet at the end of the evening, which just further proves his phenomenal acting ability.  Together, Hill, Parker, and Hallahan deliver an unsettling, but entirely necessary message to audiences, which will be sure to stay with them for some time. 

Rounding out the incredible writing and acting in Pass Over is the production’s design team.  From sound designer Ray Nardelli’s eerily ironic opening music to Wilson Chin’s simple, yet incredibly effective scenic design, this team crafted the perfect world for Hill, Parker, and Hallahan to exist within.  A particularly striking aspect of the set was the way in which Chin constructed varying levels near the back of the stage so that each time Hallahan exited, he simply seemed to just disappear from the scene.  This visual was certainly a chilling one at times, as it made it quite possible that Hallahan’s presence could re-emerge at any time.  Marcus Doshi’s lighting design was a striking one, as it made use of more than just light on stage to tell the story.  Moments where the play was still continuing, but the full house lights were up made for serious moments of self-reflection as you were able to see the reactions of those around you, while also realizing that the sunrise does not always bring new beginnings for everyone.  Dede Ayite’s costume design suited each character perfectly, particularly the all-white full suit she fitted Hallahan’s Mister character in.  The intense visual contrast between Hallahan and Hill and Parker further added to the production’s hard-hitting message about the lack of equal opportunity among members of our community.  From the writing to the acting to the artistic design, Pass Over was an exceptionally outstanding production.

The purpose of theatre is to tell a story and to use these stories to entertain, inspire, and educate.  Too often, we are told the same stories with the same endings time and time again.  There can be no growth without new knowledge, and it is for this reason that our theatre community should embrace Nwandu’s work with open arms as she fearlessly delves into an uncomfortable, but very real subject matter.  Pass Over dares its audiences to seriously reflect upon their own prejudices and assumptions as it throws you into the midst of a crisis many of us sheepishly choose to ignore.  Nwandu has given us a gift by telling us the story of the men we are often so quick to persecute without first taking the time to understand the world through their eyes.  There is so much pain and suffering happening in our society right now, and without playwright’s like Nwandu shedding light on this brutal reality, we will see no progress.  Pass Over is an important step in helping guide us into a brighter, safer future for everyone.  None of us should be forced to stay immobile because of others’ fears and perceptions of who we may appear to be, and productions like this will only drive us closer to making dreams come true for everyone. 

Pass Over runs now through July 9, 2017 in the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St.  Tickets ($20-$89) are available through Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or by visiting www.steppenwolf.org.  For more information, please visit www.theatreinchicago.com.


Photos by Michael Brosilow.

Rebecca Curl is a freelance wig and make-up artisan and writer based in Chicago.  She recently received her BFA in Wig and Make-up Design and an English Minor from The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University.  Follow her on Twitter!