Chicago Theatre Review
Godot in the 21st Century
Pass Over – Steppenwolf Theatre
Award-winning American playwright Antoinette Nwandu debuts her most recent drama, a “provocative riff on ‘Waiting for Godot,’” at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre. Inspired somewhat by the young black men Ms. Nwandu encountered while teaching at an urban community college, the play melds volumes of profanity with the poetry of the street. A pair of young black men named Moses and Kitch hang out on an urban street corner, waiting…waiting for life to happen, waiting to pass over to a new reality. Like his namesake, Moses sees himself somewhat as a leader of his people, in this case Kitch. He and Kitch stand around under a streetlight, talking trash, dreaming of fancy foods, dodging bullets and hoping that this day will somehow be different from all the rest, dreaming that they’ll find a way to escape this endless cycle of violence and despair.
Directed with style and creativity by New York-based guest artist Danya Taymor, this intense, often humorous play is a plea for all of us to remember that every life matters, particular black lives. They’re the minority who seem to be in more danger than any others. These aren’t extraordinary guys: entertainers, athletes or scholars. They’re everyday African American men whose lives never seem to improve, who never catch a break. They’re the faces of the hundreds of statistics we read or hear about daily, the young men who, because of the color of their skin, are automatically deemed dangerous and the target of bullying law enforcement.
So, under a streetlight, Moses (played with grit and gumption by Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (a very likable, endearing Julian Parker) are forever trapped in poverty and a dead-end existence, waiting for something or someone to lift them from their status quo. In Nwandu’s play, hope arrives in the form of a friendly white gentleman, dressed in an ice cream-colored suit, and carrying a large picnic basket. Generously played by Ryan Hallahan, he’s like Red Riding Hood, lost in this urban jungle and on his way to his mother’s house. Gushing niceties prefaced by Gosh, Golly, Gee, and offering a banquet of edible delicacies to Moses and Kitch, he calls himself “Mister,” although sometimes slipping and ominously saying “Master.” The hope and goodwill he offers is short-lived; Hallahan returns later as a brutish white policeman, and again much later as Mister, but sporting a very different demeanor and attitude. The play’s ending is violent and will leave audiences in shock. But, unfortunately, this has become the reality for so many African American young men these days. Just when trust is achieved it’s tragically shattered.
Wilson Chin’s scenic design is sparse, focusing our attention on the three characters and their plight, rather than their environment. The spartan design reinforces the emptiness of Moses and Kitch’s world. Dede Ayite has costumed her cast authentically, creating a gentile Colonel Sanders-look for Hallahan’s Mister. Ms Taymor’s equally spare direction keeps her two leading actors trapped on an existential vertical plane, while Ossifer and Mister have access to the stage via stairs, both leading from below the stage as well as the back row of the house.
In this world premiere, Ray Nardelli’s preshow music initially lulls theatergoers into a false sense of optimism. We hear lush ballads and uptempo ditties by Rodgers & Hammerstein that ironically put the audience in a cheerful mood. However, all that soon fades away as Antoinette Nwandu’s gritty, nightmare of a drama unfolds and we find ourselves, not in the idealized universe of musical comedy, but in the harsh reality of the today’s violent world. There are no answers offered, only plenty of questions. But one thing is certain: this up-and-coming playwright’s new drama is sure to spark many heated, post-production discussions.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 1-July 9 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.