Spike Lee’s treatment of ‘Pass Over’ brings this phenomenal play back into the forefront

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CAST AND STAGE director Danya Taymor at the recent private screening of Spike Lee’s film “Pass Over.” Pictured (L to R): Ryan Hallahan, Danya Taymor, Julian Parker and Steppenwolf ensemble member Jon Michael Hill.

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader

I wrote about “Pass Over” in a recent column, when it premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre. The playwright is Antoinette Nwandu, and the action centers around two guys just hanging out, as many Black men do all across Chicago and the country, for that matter. Because of the “in-your-face” language, I liken the play to Samuel L. Jackson and Don Cheadle on a street corner just talking smack—ruminating about days gone by and dreaming about rising above their current situations and reaching the Promised Land. Now, this isn’t necessarily a place up in the sky, but a place where everything they wished for—from Air Jordans to champagne and even beans and rice—is in abundance.

But instead of Jackson and Cheadle, we have Jon Michael Hill as Moses and Julian Parker as Kitch in “Pass Over.” The two men’s commentary is as vibrant and explosive as one would imagine the above-mentioned film stars would be, as they regale each other with stories, most times greeting each other and dotting their dialogue with the “N” word.

And then a proper, white gentleman who reminds one of Gomer Pyle invades their space, and Moses and Kitch are confused as to the man’s mission. On top of this, the stranger gives his name as Master, a name by which the two men aren’t going to even try to use to address him. But this man wonders just why Moses and Kitch are comfortable addressing each other as Nigga but uncomfortable addressing him as Master.

JON MICHAEL HILL assumes the position during yet another instance of harassment by the police officer in “Pass Over.”

The two also have to deal with a brash white police officer who finds sport in haranguing them daily, making them go through demeaning drills, just for his pleasure.

This is just the first half of the play, which veteran filmmaker Spike Lee has created as an Amazon Prime movie. But this time, Lee has added front and back scenes to the play that feature Chicagoans gathering at Saint Sabina to take buses to Steppenwolf, which is located at 1650 N. Halsted St., to see the play. Lee’s treatment is more than just a re-cast of “Pass Over,” but he shows the emotions and reactions of the theatre goers as they are witnessing all of the injustices that are played out during the performance.

Many in the audience may never have been to the near North Side, let alone to a live theatre performance. And I’m sure many of the youth in the theatre the day that Lee’s crew came to town to tape this performance have probably seen death right in their own neighborhoods—either personally affecting them or their friends.

In my opinion, “Pass Over” is a riff on “Waiting for Godot,” but with Black men who use the most colorful language to pass away their time. Inspired in part by the young Black men Nwandu encountered as a community college teacher, the play crafts profane language into poetic riffs, revealing to the audience the unquestionable human spirit of these young men.

“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. 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,” shares playwright  Nwandu.

Said South Side resident Dee Davis, M.B.A., who attended a recent screening of the movie in Chicago: “Pass Over” was a stunning depiction of the real-life challenges facing African-Americans who desire the American dream but are prohibited by socio-economic, cultural, racial and judicial forces from doing so.” She added: “It is a prime example of white bias that encourages African-Americans to pursue the American dream but then ironically denies it through systemic racism.”

The themes depicted in “Pass Over” are both sad and provocative, but they are reality across towns throughout the nation. Black men ruminating about what a better life would mean for them. And before they can get it all together to realize their dreams, tragedy strikes. This film is currently playing on Amazon Prime.

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