The promised land remains out of reach in Antoinette Nwandu’s allegorical portrait of young black men waiting for change.
Using the familiar arcs of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the Old Testament’s Exodus, playwright Antoinette Nwandu places two young black men on a stark slab of asphalt with nothing to offer them. The driving question of Pass Over is whether Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) will ever be able to get off of the block and to the promised land—or whether the powerful forces of societal expectations and enforcement will keep the status quo intact.
Like Godot’s Didi and Gogo, Kitch and Moses play silly language games to pass the time until change arrives. And also like Beckett’s characters, they receive visitors: a starkly out-of-place white man with a picnic basket full of food, a combination Red Riding Hood and Big Bad Wolf; and an unfriendly neighborhood police officer whose patrol seems timed to shut down Moses and Kitch’s most hopeful moments. (Both are played with oily finesse by Ryan Hallahan).
Hill and Parker make an extraordinarily affecting pair, with a persuasive shared history. They also make more liberal use of the N-word than some of Steppenwolf’s audiences will be used to hearing, a fact which both Nwandu and artistic director Anna Shapiro address in program notes. The white visitor even broaches the question of why he’s not allowed to use the word but Moses and Kitch are. Coincidentally, Pass Over opened on the same weekend that Ice Cube appeared on Bill Maher’s HBO show to explain to the petulant host why that word is permissible in black vernacular but no longer available for white people to use with impunity.
Later in the play, Moses and Kitch hatch a plan to disguise themselves by adopting the visitor’s formal locution and aggressively inoffensive gosh-golly-gee interjections in place of their own, so they can escape undetected. Needless to say, their theory is quickly disproven. No one’s standards of respectability will prove a shield from the real violence Pass Over depicts.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Antoinette Nwandu. Directed by Danya Taymor. With Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker, Ryan Hallahan. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.