Review: Pass Over (Steppenwolf Theatre)

| June 25, 2017

Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker star as Moses and Moses in Pass Over, Steppenwolf Theatre 3           

Pass Over

Written by Antoinette Nwandu 
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru July 9  |  tix: $20-$89  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets    


Electrifying world-premiere from start to finish


Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill star as Kitch and  Moses in Pass Over, Steppenwolf Theatre

Steppenwolf Theatre presents
Pass Over

Review by Catey Sullivan

Vaudeville by way of existential absurdism by way of a scathing commentary on a country where murder is committed without reprisal – so long as the victim has an abundance of melanin. They’re all elements of Antoinette Nwandu’s explosive Pass Over, a drama that reshapes Waiting for Godot and the Bible’s Book of Exodus into a scorching condemnation of a world where skin color brands you as a target and open season never Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill star as Kitch and  Moses in Pass Over, Steppenwolf Theatre 2ends.

Directed by Danya Taymor, Steppenwolf’s 80-minute production is electrifying from start to finish. It is both riveting and excruciating, thanks to Nwandu’s uncompromising ability to lay bare the realities of an urban wilderness defined by a seemingly unbreakable cycle of fear, brutality and dreams forever deferred.

The Bible’s Moses spent 40 years wandering in the desert wilderness, leading his tribe in a quest to find the elusive Promised Land. In Pass Over, Moses is a young black man who, like his Biblical namesake, is also seeking something better. But as the days and nights blur together, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and his best friend Kitch (Julian Parker) seem no closer to escaping the exile imposed on them by systemic poverty, violence and brutal oppression.

For Moses and Kitch, the world is as barren and grim as any desert. Their yearning to break free is heartbreaking in its futility – there’s no sign of deliverance from a higher power in Pass Over, no burning bush, no heavenly promise of a promised land. And there’s this: Biblical Moses spent 40 years in the desert. Moses and Kitch are part of an exile that goes back centuries. Half a millennia after the first slave ship set sail, they’re still wandering.

Yet in this all-but unimaginably bleak landscape, Nwandu spins a banquet of gorgeously rhythmic and descriptive poetry. Moses and Kitch speak in a vernacular both hypnotic and harsh, a language where the ugliest slurs are reclaimed and transformed into something that evokes a bond of brotherhood. Nwandu also instills Pass Over with humor. The juxtaposition of laughter, violence and poetry is jarring, brilliant and mesmerizing.

Like Waiting for Godot, Pass Over focuses on two men trying to decide whether the wait – whether life itself – is worth the effort. Where Godot’s Didi and Gogo long for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, Moses and Kitch speak of yearning to “pass over.” The phrase has multiple meanings in Nwandu’s drama: At the heart of all of them is Moses and Kitch’s hope that they’ve been chosen for something other than a stunted lifetime of soul-killing futility.

Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker star as Moses and Moses in Pass Over, Steppenwolf Theatre 2Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker star as Moses and Moses in Pass Over, Steppenwolf Theatre 3 Jon Michael Hill and Ryan Hallahan star as Moses and Mister in Pass Over, Steppenwolf TheatreJon Michael Hill stars as Moses in Pass Over, Steppenwolf Theatre

Instead of the gnarled tree of Samuel Beckett’s classic, Moses and Kitch live under a battered streetlight. Like Didi and Gogo, they play games, try to rid their boots of irksome pebbles they can never quite shake out and are so closely linked they can finish each other’s sentences.

Nwandu’s dialogue carries distant echoes of iconic duos such as Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. But unlike the comics of yore, Moses and Kitch live in a world filled with a smothering sense of dread. Gun shots ring out at random, causing both to dive for cover mid-sentence.

In Nwandu’s airtight plotting, the menace comes from outsiders. A preternaturally cheerful, dandified man with a picnic basket (Ryan Hallahan) shows up first. He smiles, offers Moses and Kitch food (including good old American apple pie), and speaks with the refined, honeyed drawl of an antebellum southern gentleman.

Later, a cop (also played by Hallahan) materializes, rising from upstage in a way that’s deeply unsettling and not quite human. Without saying a word, he fills the stage with the sort of awful dread that accompanies dead-of-the-night sleep paralysis – that terrifying state where you cannot seem to move or breathe and cannot fully tell whether you’re awake or asleep. The cop’s appearance seems to suck all the air from the room, suffocating all within.

Ryan Hallahan and Julian Parker star as Mister and Kitch in Pass Over, Steppenwolf Theatre

Taymor’s three-man cast is extraordinary. As Moses, Hill travels the length of the emotional spectrum with crushing impact. Toward the end of the piece, Moses utters a plea that almost breaks the fourth wall – it’s a moment that embodies the rage of a thousand generations and it is spectacular in its urgency.

Parker delivers a star-making turn, giving Kitch a physicality that’s as powerful as the most exquisitely rendered ballet. He’s in near constant motion, sparking with a restless tension that cannot be tamped.

Hallahan gives the polite stranger shadings of a shark circling for the kill. His smile is filled with knives, and when he finally reveals himself in the final scene, it’s as horrific as it is indelible. As the cop, he barely says a thing, but the monstrousness of the character is as vivid and frightening as sudden bloodshed.

Wilson Chin’s spare set captures the stark ugliness of a corner left to rot; long forgotten by those with the means to make it better. And with the light and sound design by (respectively) Marcus Doshi and Ray Nardelli, the corner becomes a world entire.

Pass Over is the rare drama that will keep you utterly rapt from start to finish, while also spinning an unforgettable commentary on the problems that plague 21st century America. There’s nothing preachy about it, even as it makes its points with stunning force. If you miss this production, you’ll have missed one of the seminal dramas of the year – perhaps of many, many years.

Rating: ★★★★

Pass Over continues through July 9th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20-$89, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 80 minutes, no intermission)

Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker star as Moses and Moses in Pass Over, Steppenwolf Theatre

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Ryan Hallahan (Mister, Ossifer), Jon Michael Hill (Moses), Julian Parker (Kitch), Gregory Geffrard (u/s Moses), Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr. (u/s Kitch), Christopher Sheard (u/s Mister, Ossifer).

behind the scenes

Danya Taymor (director), Wilson Chin (set design), Dede M. Ayite (costume design), Marcus Doshi (lighting design), Ray Nardelli (sound design, original music), Cassie Calderone (stage manager), Kathleen Barrett (asst. stage manager), JC Clementz (casting director), Aaron Carter (artistic producer), Tom Pearl (director of production), Tasia Jones (asst. director), Aram Kim, Zhao Mingshuo (asst. scenic designers), Kaili Story (asst. lighting design), Sarah Illiatovich-Goldman (script supervisor), Lucas Garcia, Lauren Katz (additional research), Aaron Stephenson (sound board operator), Jacob Brown, Kevin Lynch, Mark Vinson (additional carpentry), Bennett Seymour (additional properties), Sarah Diefenbach (wardrobe crew), Gianna Petrosino (stage manager apprentice), Rebecca Adelsheim, Rebekah Camm, Gregory Geffrard, Lavina Jadhwani, Neel McNeill, Derek Matson, Derek McPhatter, Leean Torske (audience engagement associates), Anne D. Shapiro (artistic director), David Schmitz (executive director), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Jon Michael Hill stars as Moses in Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre


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Category: 2017 Reviews, Catey Sullivan, Drama, New Work, Samuel Beckett, Steppenwolf, World Premier

Comments (1)

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  1. Martha Conrad says:

    Dear Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Bommer ,

    I found your review of Pass Over on line. I’m a lawyer here in town and below I’m sending you a letter from Carl Dix who asked me to help reach out to people who might be interested in being part of “Art, Truth and Revolution: a discussion of the play Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu” on July 3, at 6:30 pm at Gallery Cafe, 1760 W. North Ave. Warm Regards, Martha Conrad After you read Carl Dix’s letter, please contact him and please invite anyone you think would be interested in the discussion.
    From: Carl Dix

    Dear friend,

    I’m writing to let you know about and invite you to participate in a discussion of Antoinette Nwandu’s play, “Pass Over,” on Monday, July 3, 6:30PM at the Gallery Cafe, 1760 W. North (at the corner of Wood).The theme for this panel is “Art, Truth and Revolution.” We are doing this panel because we think this play does something rare. It accurately puts on stage the situation faced by young Black people in this country: weighted down by forces beyond their control and facing futures that have been stripped of hope. Some of them have given up in the face of this, but many of them aspire to get out of that situation, to “pass over,” but are fearful of what they’d confront if they did. (Here’s a link to a review of “Pass Over” that we ran on our website, .)

    Not surprisingly, a play that puts young Black people and the situation they face on stage generated much controversy – charges of stereotyping white cops and questions about why the play “avoided” violence among Black people flew think and fast. We think it’s important that people have a chance to talk about this, which is why we’re doing this discussion. We conceived of this as a panel discussion As yet I’m the only committed panelist, and I’m inviting you to join the panel, suggest someone else you think should be asked to join the panel or both.

    I plan to open the discussion with a brief presentation on the significance of what the play puts on stage and what I see as the relation between art and revolution. If you join me as a panelist, you should address your thoughts on the play. And I hope to make this discussion one where the bulk of the time is discussion with the audience about the play, its characters, what people thought the playwright was doing with this play, etc. I’m preparing some questions to give some framework for this discussion to jump off, if that’s needed.

    So let me know if you’re interested in being part of this discussion and in what way, and/or if you know of others who should be approached about being part of it.

    Thank you,
    Carl Dix

    Carl Dix is a revolutionary leader who came out of the 1960″s. He is a follower of and advocate for Bob Avakian, his leadership and his visionary new synthesis of communism. Carl is a co-initiator of Refuse Fascism. Carl Dix and Cornel West co-founded the Stop Mass Incarceration Network (SMIN), and Rise Up October that brought thousands into the streets in New York City in 2015 demanding a stop to police terror.

    “There is the potential for something of unprecedented beauty to arise out of unspeakable ugliness: Black people playing a crucial role in putting an end, at long last, to this system which has, for so long, not just exploited but dehumanized, terrorized and tormented them in a thousand ways – putting an end to this in the only way it can be done – by fighting to emancipate humanity, to put an end to the long night in which human society has been divided into masters and slaves, and the masses of humanity have been lashed, beaten, raped, slaughtered, shackled and shrouded in ignorance and misery.”
    Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party,