Review: PASS OVER at Steppenwolf

Review: PASS OVER at Steppenwolf

Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

By Jonald Jude Reyes

Where is the promised land?

When I was a child, the police were “the good guys.” I was continually taught that if anything bad were to happen, I should dial 911 for help. If I would get lost, I was to find a police officer and assumed I’d be assisted with care and a smile. Headline stories in the last few years have shed a new light on a problem that wasn’t so overt before the advent of cell phone video. It’s clear that some police officers are good and some are bad. All are human and not infallible. Some still have the smile, but they have no right to be an officer.

Unfortunately for the African-American male, this recent awakening isn’t new. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites in this country, with a major contributing factor being crime prompted by social and economic isolation.

In Antoinette Nwandu’s PASS OVER we see, here and now, what happens to two young black men that are isolated to one block, and how authorities keep them contained and oppressed.

As you enter the theater, song titles such as “Que Sera, Sera” and “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” loom overhead. On stage, a man is passed out as another paces. The set is simple – a street light, a fire hydrant, a rock, a broken water fountain and a deflated basketball. We’re on the corner of a desolate city street. As the house lights dim and the music fades, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) abruptly wakes up.

Straightaway, there is a familiarity watching two best friends play around with each other. Moses says that his plan for the day is to get off the block, and Kitch (Julian Parker) simply inquires, “You get off this block, where you gonna go?” Such a simple question, but what unravels along the way is just how complex it is to get off the block, and why going anywhere would really not change anything for these two black men.

As the two go back and forth, passing their time with talks about dreams and their vision of “the promised land,” blaring gunshots are heard. They immediately hit the floor as if a routine exercise. It’s a reality check for the audience — this is their everyday life. It then becomes a regular pattern that every time anything seemingly positive happens for the two, something bad immediately ends their moment. They are visited by a white stranger and an officer (both played by Ryan Hallahan), who’s interactions with them foster paranoia and suspicion. The conflicting personas and racial tension are overtly evident.

Hill and Parker exchange dialogue in rhythmic sequences which play like spoken word and display depth beyond their characters. The two actors speak from an honest place, and the cadence and tone in their deliveries assign weight to what they’re saying. They have an even give-and-take throughout this play, showing the strength of the characters’ friendship. Parker plays the more childlike, and Hill is more of a leader. It’s a Laurel & Hardy dynamic. During surreal moments, Hill digs deep to exhibit a grounded vulnerability. Parker has the audience on his side at any given moment. When Hallahan enters for either of his characters, he brings such a conservative and well-contained energy. As the stranger, he’s calculated, passive aggressively so. As the police officer, he knows when to shift his energy between stern and combative.

Based off of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Nwandu writes PASS OVER with a beautiful modern-day slang pace. The intertwining of contemporary brash language and whimsical imaginary dreams is very reminiscent of Beckett’s own play on words. Paralleling current events, there is an instance where the two black men have a debate with the white stranger over the use of the N-word. As Bill Maher has found himself embroiled in controversy over the use of that word, Moses rebuttal to the white stranger rings near Ice Cube’s remarks to Maher.

PASS OVER is a picture-perfect representation of the inner-city lower economic areas across the nation. Even if their circumstances are different, the audience can relate to this feeling of being stuck while still having dreams of a better life, because hope is a powerful thing. We need to ask ourselves, “do black lives matter?” Because the thought of complacency is frightening for the future of humanity. PASS OVER is an important play that is necessary for now.

About author

Jonald Jude Reyes

Jonald Jude Reyes is a Writer, Performer & Director in Chicago, IL. His works have been performed in various theaters city-wide, including Stage 773, The Annoyance, and The Second City. In 2016, he was named Best of Stage Director by the Chicago Reader and was selected to the DirectorsLabChicago program. Learn more at