Passing on the Program

Reading the show notes for a theatre production before you see the show is like skipping to the last chapter of a book. Same with reviews. I try to avoid both reviews and programs and read them only after I've attended a performance. That way I can decide for myself what I think of a work. But last week in Chicago I got to the Steppenwolf Theatre early, for a rush ticket. By myself, without a book, I suspended my usual practice and opened the program, where Anna B. Shapiro, the artistic director of Steppenwolf, discloses the personal and artistic reasons why she programmed "Pass Over," a play by the gifted Antoinette Nwandu about the plight of young black men in inner city U.S.A.

A friend had recommended the show and also reported that the theatre community had risen in revolt against the Chicago Sun Times theatre critic Hedy Weiss for what was considered a racist review.  So it was with loaded anticipation that I took my seat and waited through the opening music, a series of mid-century American musical comedy tunes that, on the surface, would have been better suited to "Ah, Wilderness," a revival of the Eugene O'Neill comedy which was playing downtown at the Goodman Theatre.

But "Pass Over" is all about the historic dominance of white over black. The show tunes were meant to be ironic, something Samuel Beckett, Nwandu's inspiration, might have enjoyed. In her own notes, which I also read before the show, Nwandu explains how the Book of Exodus played into her dramatic concept and says that Beckett "was the beginning of everything for me". She uses two African-American characters, Moses and Kitch, as the stand-ins for Estragon and Vladmir. The set suggests a ghetto street corner from which Moses and Kitch hope to "pass over" to better lives. I loved the biblical and Beckett allusions, some very sharp poetic dialogue and the brilliant acting. The characters (Jon Michael Hill as Moses, Julian Parker as Kitch and Ryan Hallahan as the white Mr. Master, and the cop) elicited both fear and empathy. The racial cracks in North American society, particularly in Chicago, need more consistent exposure and theatre is an excellent way of bringing them to light. Danya Taymor directed this production.

I happened to be in the city for a couple events related to my recent novel, The Reason for Time, whose climax occurs during the 1919 race riot, the worst of 25 in U.S. cities that summer. The recommendations that came out of the Governor's Commission into the riot's causes, if followed, might have mitigated the situation that developed in Chicago. Why did things get worse instead of better? "Pass Over" did not exactly satisfy my hopes for insight, except in its confirmation that the police still contribute to the problem. Nevertheless, I found the play compelling until near the end, when a tortuous scene involving Moses and Kitch's desperate idea for how to truly get to the promised land devolves into a sort of gratuitous simplicity at which I can imagine Beckett groaning.


In the reviews I did wait to read after the show, The Chicago Tribune calls it a promising play whose last quarter stumbles because of too much symbolism. Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun Times objected to the same part of the play because, in her view, the show directs us to believe that the police kill more African American than gang members of the same race. While that may or may not be true, I feel she hit the wrong nail on the head. The reason the last five to ten minutes sputter in my view is because the team abandoned art in favour of politics. The beautifully unrolling metaphors (or "megaphores," as Kitch says) were choked by heavy handedness, and, as seems so often these days, it came down to a "which side are you on?" situation.


On the way out, I heard a man say to his friend that the original ending  of the play had been changed. Even more food for thought. I wish I knew what Ms Nwandu had first intended, and why the company altered it in favour of didacticism. Maybe my opinion would have been different if the program notes and my friend's comments had not filled me with expectations. Next time...