Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker, Ryan Hallahan, Blake DeLong
Watch Pass Over online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
“This country’s ours again. Isn’t it great?” Those are the words left ringing in your ears after Pass Over has finished, and it’s a ringing that still resonates years after the play’s debut.
Premiering at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, written by Antoinette Nwandu, the 2017 play blends the reality of American streets with Waiting for Godot. We join Moses and Kitch, two young black men hanging on a street corner, passing the time just to pass the time. They tease each other, insult each other, respect each other and support each other. They may scatter their speech with the N-word, but like Samuel Beckett’s seminal work, their poetic banter discusses everything and nothing, existing and not existing.
It’s a striking transposition of that philosophical limbo to the corner of 64th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, a pointed location that’s captured with evocative sparseness by stage director Danya Taymor. The streetlamp (not unlike Beckett’s tree) is the only bit of real estate in sight, its bulb flickering on and off, and that lack of anything else, anything tangible, creates a sense of isolation and containment; the only hints of life elsewhere we get are the sounds of gunshot that keep the action literally grounded, as our two leads instinctively drop to the floor whenever they ring out.
Their time together is interrupted by the arrival of a cartoonishly white male, dressed in a spotless cream suit with a picnic basket for his mum. Sharing his food with them, he seems ignorant in his privilege, albeit well-meaning, but from the reveal of his name to his occasional choice of words, tension begins to grow the longer he strays away from his bubble and into theirs, and you can feel something uglier bubbling up from beneath the surface.
Played by Ryan Hallahan with a loud grin and blustering sense of entitlement, he’s slickly polite and sickeningly friendly. It’s his larger-than-life presence that highlights just how well drawn Moses and Kitch are in their subtly believable chemistry. Jon Michael Hill is superb as the former, a cautious, reticent figure who doesn’t know what caviar is, and he’s matched by Julian Parker as his charismatic sidekick, who’s more worldly but in no better position socially. Both of them talk of passing over into the promised land, dreaming of what they might find there, and while that initial wishing for something better is poignant, the deeper, darker truth behind those words speaks volumes of the end goal they can expect to achieve in life – something reinforced by the appearance of a racist cop (Blake DeLong) partway through.
Spike Lee brings all of this to life with an urgency and immediacy that grabs you from the off. The digital age means that recorded plays are an increasingly common hybrid form of art, capable of conveying the power of theatrical work through the screen (you can read our digital theatre reviews here). Lee is a natural at navigating that boundary, placing his camera every which way he can to find new perspectives of the characters, each creative step further only highlighting how limited the men’s own options are.
In another masterstroke, Lee bookends the play with footage of the local community audience attending the play, showing us the joy as well as the sadness of their shared experience, even cutting away to show audience members laughing or gasping at the play’s events. A closing montage recalls his opening to She’s Gotta Have It, and his ability to portray his characters as people in their own right is as vibrant as ever.
“No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home. You would show me I have something, some people call a soul…” the closing track by Sampha sings over the end credits. That giving of a soul, something that trumps the characters of Waiting for Godot in their never-ending purgatory, claims life and humanity for our two young homeless men, even as their country is taken away from them. BlacKkKlansman, released in the same year as this, won Spike Lee his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, but Pass Over packs just as much of a punch and deserves to be sought out.
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