Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill in Steppenwolf’s production of PASS OVER. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Jason Epperson
You would think that Steppenwolf just produced the very first play ever about race to be performed in Chicago. Jesus. Perhaps we are the greatest theater city in the world, but we must look like the Clampetts sometimes from the outside.
Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf, is a riff on “Waiting for Godot,” but set on a poor inner-city block, with two Black men that are confined by society. Society, in this case, represented directly by a single actor who portrays two different white men, one being a cop. And white critics are losing their ever-loving minds over it.
Hedy Weiss at the Chicago Sun-Times — no stranger to conservative opinion (at best) — wrote the following ridiculous paragraph:
“To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African-Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene. And the playwright’s final scenes — including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story — and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s largely white ‘liberal’ audience — further rob the play of its potential impact.”
What the actual hell? How do you know she meant to “indict all white cops” and not just the systemic racism that allows the bad ones to carry a badge? Weiss leads into this paragraph by saying “You will understand why simply by tracking the endless headlines of senseless, endemic violence in Chicago over the past week to see why this play distorts the full story.” Sentence structure aside — “distorts the full story?” What story? Is this play telling the entire history of racial division in Chicago? I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m certain that isn’t the goal. I’m sorry, Hedy, that this play made you have an “All Lives Matter” moment. Do you need a cookie to recover?
She goes on to say: “As it often does, Steppenwolf tries to send a message with this play. Instead, it ends up clubbing its audience over the head in a way that also makes its applause feel self-congratulatory.” I’m not sure what Chicago plays she is seeing, but the idea that a play can’t send a message…I mean…this is Steppenwolf, she should be heralding the newly invigored fire that it was built upon.
Then, Lawrence Bommer drops a line into his stageandcinema.com review saying “PASS OVER is an 80-minute roller-coaster, dangerous with pungent poetic personifications of white power and black victimhood. Nwandu boldly (or selectively) shapes (or simplifies) this microcosm to suit her indictments: All the bullets come from ‘white’ guns. These targeted young men have none of their own. Here hope is just a four-letter word.” Ok, what, was she supposed to be fair to the white people? Bommer mostly loved the play, but felt the ridiculous urge to trot out, as Weiss did – but veiled, the ‘why aren’t we talking about Black on Black crime’ trope. Because we’re not? Because that isn’t what this play is about? Why are we holding a playwright of color to a standard that requires them to comment on all of society if they want to illustrate one problem?
Finally, Katy Walsh thought it would be appropriate for her to use the N-word several times in her review, albeit with a single asterisk in place of the “i.” Apparently, because the show uses it, she was trying to somehow relate? OK Bill Maher – THE PLAY HAS A SCENE ABOUT WHY WHITE PEOPLE CAN’T — USE THAT WORD! She loved the production, the review has since been edited, and she apologized on her Facebook page — but it had a lot of eyeballs popping. What do Black people need to do to let white people know how hurtful that word is?
Reviewing shows isn’t as easy as it sounds, and opinions are always going to anger people, but these instances have no place in theater criticism. They are manifestations of the critic’s uncomfortable relationship with the subject matter, and they should examine why before putting those words to the page. It sounds to me from the defensiveness it is inciting, “Pass Over” is doing exactly what it intended to.