What do you get when you combine Waiting for Godot, current American race issues, and Biblical lore into a narrative that’s at times hilarious, suspenseful and quirky? You get Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, produced in 2017 by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and directed by Spike Lee. The direction delivers the intensity of Nwandu’s play—given life by actors Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill–exploding through whatever screen you view it on.
Live theater teeters between two worlds. Film reels betwixt the screen and the audience. When live theater is filmed, context grounds it in a reality that enables film audiences a sense of participation. Lee’s choice to bookend the film by following the live audience in and out of the theater onto buses gives the movie audience a sense of time and place. We see their faces in the style of a slideshow at the end of the film. They could be our friends and neighbors.
Samuel Becket makes his characters wait for Godot. Passover lore has Jews set an extra place at the table for Elijah. Instead of waiting for someone to come, lead characters Kitch (Julian Parker) and Moses (Jon Michael Hill) are waiting for the moment they’ll be able to escape the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and 64th Street and make it to the promised land. Over the course of 75 minutes, they duck sporadic gunfire, trash talk about everything and nothing and have a bizarre encounter with an oddly well-mannered white gentleman in a seersucker suit (Ryan Hallahan). The men can’t stay lost in their fantasies. The streets forbid it.
One moment the men are joking about ordering room-service in an exaggerated British accent. Kitch thinks of the fanciest thing he can order which is caviar. He is dumbfounded when Moses breaks it to him that caviar is super expensive fish eggs. The next second Moses and Kitch are belly down on the stage as the sound of gunfire detonates. The layers of subtext feel almost infinite. It is ironic that something no larger than Beluga Caviar fish eggs when made of metal, encased in a bullet, and fired from a gun can be as inversely destructive as the fantasy of caviar is pleasurable. Lee’s talent as a director is his ability to supplant the unknown. To dignify our response as an audience by mirroring it with judicious cutaways to the live audience at the Steppenwolf shows restraint born of more than 30 years of directorial experience.
Production company: 40 Acres and a Mule
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker, Ryan Hallahan, Blake DeLong
Director-producer: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Antoinette Nwandu
Director of photography: Chayse Irvin
Costume designer: Marci Rodgers
Editor: Hye Mee NaRunning time: 75 minutes
Jennifer Parker is a Manhattan-based writer and mother. The editor in chief of StatoRec, Jennifer’s film criticism and author profiles have appeared in At Large Magazine, Fjords Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books.