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Steppenwolf's 'Pass Over' Takes On Emptiness Of Many Young Black Lives

By Ted Cox | June 13, 2017 5:03am
 Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill star in Steppenwolf's
Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill star in Steppenwolf's "Pass Over."
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Steppenwolf Theatre/Michel Brosilow

RANCH TRIANGLE — Steppenwolf Theatre takes on issues close to home in its new play "Pass Over."

On the surface, playwright Antoinette Nwandu's "Pass Over" is a takeoff on Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," but in this case the existential emptiness refers specifically to the all-but-empty lives of many young black men.

Steppenwolf ensemble member Jon Michael Hill stars as Moses, with Julian Parker playing Kitch. They're seen homeless sleeping on the street, dodging bullets when they're not razzing each other or sharing dreams of getting off the street. It resonates with issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement.

"At its core, this play asks us collectively to consider the value of black lives, specifically the lives of young black men who are not extraordinary, who are not entertainers, they’re not athletes, they’re not secret math geniuses," Nwandu said in a Steppenwolf press release. "They're young men who might never get better, who might never be different. This play challenges us to envision a society that does not ask these young men to prove their worth."

As if addressing last week's controversy over HBO political commentator Bill Maher, they routinely drop the N-word into their dialogue, but one white character played by Ryan Hallahan (back after appearing in "Straight White Men" earlier this season) typically pulls up short of saying it. A police officer, however, says it with impunity.

Artistic Director Anna Shapiro acknowledges the thorny issues involved in "the role of a predominantly white institution in the presentation of voices historically not their own" in a note to the audience, clearly meant to undercut any criticism, that opens the theatrical program. "While these conversations and the feelings attendant to them are not always easy," she adds, "they are central to the vitality and relevance of Steppenwolf Theatre and all other arts organizations who wish to be an authentic part of this country's desperately needed reckoning with race."

The play is undeniably topical with Chicago's persistent problem with street violence, and five people killed and 39 wounded locally over the weekend when "Pass Over" debuted at Steppenwolf.

The play formally opened Sunday and continues through July 9 at Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets range from $20-$89.

Nwandu will return to Chicago early next year for the world premiere of her new play "Breach" at Victory Gardens Theater.