Check It Out:

Pass Over, by Antoinette Nwandu

June 17, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

Pass Over, by Antoinette Nwandu, is a pathbreaking play focusing on two young Black men, Moses and Kitch, trapped in the bleak and blasted-out city landscape that could be located either off Fury Road near Thunderdome or a few miles south or west of the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, where the play is being put on. 

Nwandu mashes up Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett,* and the Exodus myth in the Bible—and comments on both in doing so—to give you the humor, aching dreams, humanity and essential predicament of two characters you don't see on the stage very often. Nwandu gives you two characters who will make you laugh (in an interview, she wishes for a world in which they could be seen in the “same family tree as Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello”) and make you cry. She combines surreal symbolism—which in this case doesn't come off as just “wow, that's weird” but a twisting and exaggeration that lets you see into the inner core of reality—to get you to ask who and what confines these youth. Where is Egypt today? Who is Pharaoh and who are his soldiers? Who really is that strange and seemingly naive white man in the ice-cream suit on his way to “mother's house,” offering a picnic basket full of goodies to Moses and Kitch? Can we rely on the old myths to get free—or is the case, as the play's character Moses says at one point, that that river Jordan ain't for us? Can people transform...and how? And how entrenched are the forces that stand against that? Decades ago a French dramatist, Antonin Artaud, called for theater that would have the urgency of someone burning at the stake who was trying to signal through the flames—Pass Over is in that tradition. 

I hate it when reviewers give away too much of the content of whatever it is they're reviewing, so normally I'd say no more about the play other than to recommend people go see it. But Hedy Weiss, the theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, created a controversy by attacking the play for its allegedly one-sided treatment of white cops and, according to her, its failure to speak to the horror of Black youth gunning down each other. So—spoiler alert—some of the actual content must be discussed. But let's just say this: the play cuts right to the essence of how the police treat Black and Brown youth—and in the part of the play Weiss objects to, there is no need for surreal exaggeration, and Nwandu gives you what could pass for a dash-cam documentary, to great effect. As for the argument that the play does not deal with Black youth killing each other: on one level, this is idiotic. Since when do you criticize what an artistic work does deal with by saying it should have dealt with something else? Further, Weiss apparently missed a crucial scene in the play in which that phenomenon IS in fact directly dealt with and another in which it is clearly being touched on. But beyond that—objectively, the play does approach this problem in a deep way by implication and provides a context in which a theater-goer (and Weiss somewhat sneeringly refers to Steppenwolf's “white liberal” audience) could begin to understand that. 

The heart of the matter is this: the core truth of Bob Avakian's quote from BAsics—that the police “enforce the relations of exploitation and oppression, the conditions of poverty, misery and degradation into which the system has cast people and is determined to keep people in”—comes to life here. And this is what Weiss does not like.

To their credit, Anna Shapiro, Steppenwolf's artistic director, and David Schmitz, the executive director, fired back at Weiss, and other critics, who “revealed at best the ignorance of the critic and at worst, a racial bias that, when captured in print, wounded many people of color in this community and their allies, and served as a horrendous reminder of how far we still have to come in terms of racial equity in this community.”

This is the kind of theater that is needed right now. If you are at all close to Chicago, see this play.


* Waiting for Godot is a play by Samuel Beckett, written in the mid-20th century. Two tramps—Vladimir and Estragon—wait in a bleak landscape for someone (a person? A god? Something else? It is not made clear) named Godot who never shows up. The play—which was both very bleak and very funny, very poetic and very philosophical—was hugely influential artistically, and could be understood as putting forward a certain view of “the human condition” which tended to negate the quest for a significance or value to existence larger than the humanity with which people dealt with each other in their personal relationships. [back]




Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.