Steppenwolf Presents PASS OVER Review – Hell of Breathing While Black

Editor’s Note:  Read related interviews in the George Floyd: In Memoriam roundup.

Steppenwolf PASS OVER
Steppenwolf ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (Moses) in Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of Pass Over, written by Antoinette Nwandu and directed by Danya Taymor Photo: MIchael Brosilow

Steppenwolf Production Speaks to Black Lives Matter Rage

Expressing burning rage at racism in the eloquent tradition of James Baldwin, playwright Antoinette Nwandu gives those of us not living the hell of low-income Black men trapped in the ghetto a mind-stretching peephole into what motors the Black Lives Matter movement.

Truth to tell, Harvard-educated Nwandu too is grabbing much of this world from a reach—but with exceptionally nuanced intimacy. Nwandu is obviously cut from the supersmart “young, gifted and Black” cloth. The two main protagonists in her story—Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) have no such luck.

They are just guys. If they had been born White and middle or lower middle class they might be also be worrying about not reaching their full potential. Their White equivalents though, would reflect on this without bullets whizzing by and sadistic police nearby ever-ready to bludgeon them for breathing while Black. Not a great lottery ticket to get.

Then again, Moses and Kitch aren’t altogether ordinary guys.

Even before the official “curtain”, we walk into the performance space to see them on the stage.   Moses is sleeping in a corner and we might not notice him at first. Kitch is there- sometimes posing on a concrete pillar like Rodin’s Thinker, sometimes dancing with an imagined partner, or deep in a song or conversation. He is restless. The stark street set (Set Design: Wilson Chin) announces that they are in the ghetto and of the street.   Meanwhile, a parade of 50’s and 60’s Broadway and other top hit songs — “Come On. Get Happy”, “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “June is Busting Out All Over”, etc.— tells us we are in WHITE America, a truly brilliant touch (Sound Design and Original Music, Ray Nardelli and Director Danya Taymor).  

Steppenwolf PASS OVER
(left to right) Ryan Hallahan (Mister) and Julian Parker (Kitch) Photo: Michael Brosilow

A day begins. This day, like all days, has the two friends acting out what we eventually see are their deep rooted survival rituals. There’s the refereed wish lists reviews—from hot dates, to great food, to newest Nikes and more. There’s teasing that sometimes breaks out into dance moves. There are accusations of each other that they are being so “plantation”. Mostly there is an N-word packed Black English banter that we come to realize is a poetic duel between the ideas of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot vs. the story of the Exodus from the Bible. In moments they think they can see the waters divide and they can break free as in the biblical story of Passover. Their lot though, is to be passed over.

Enter the White Man

Into their No Exit existence comes a White man, Mister (Ryan Hallahan) dressed in white and oozing lotsa “Gosh and Gee Gollies” from his mouth, making him an instant Poster Boy for those White People who imagine an idyllic time in days gone by when Black people knew their place.

To detail any more of this exquisite script would be a tragic spoiler. Suffice it to say that the many twists and turns and plot unveilings of truth in this script come across like detailed architectural drawings of hell.

Nuanced Acting

The only puzzle might be whether less capable actors could ever possibly pull off this script with the aplomb of these three actors.


Steppenwolf PASS OVER
(left to right) ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (Moses) and Ryan Hallahan (Mister) Photo: Michael Brosilow

Performances don’t come stronger or more nuanced than these. When Julian Parker switches voice to mimic an uppercrust Brit or other blue blood, he telegraphs his extraordinary acting range, while at the same time giving the gallows humor comedy strain in this script its due. When Parker and Hill are called upon to dance or be more physical we are reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s genius. When Hallahan transforms into another White Person character we almost want to gasp. All three- --- simply magnetic.

If you want a light night out and escapist fare this is not your show. If you like to see theater that will pierce you, rock you, and demand your continuing attention and consideration long after the curtain falls, this is your show.


Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.

Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.


Through July 9

Curtain times vary-- Tuesdays - Sundays.  (No performance July 4)



Steppenwolf Upstairs Theater
1650 North Halsted





Via Steppenwolf Audience Services at 312 335 1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Website.


Photos:  Michael Brosilow

Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.


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