Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Waiting for Substantive Change: Referencing Beckett's 'Godot,' Antoinette Nwandu's 'Pass Over' Offers a Powerful Perspective at Steppenwolf -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Pass Over
a world premiere play
by Antoinette Nwandu
directed by Danya Taymor
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 9

As a straight, white, Jewish, lifelong suburbanite, I cannot suggest I have direct understanding of what an African-American--or any other minority, or a woman for that matter--experiences on a daily basis, let alone over the course of a lifetime.

I also can't deny that there have been times when being in the vast minority myself--on a train, in a park, etc.--has made me somewhat uncomfortable. Perhaps in this and other ways, I have been guilty of racism.

But I wholeheartedly believe that no one is less than equal to me due to the color of their skin (or their gender, religion, sexual orientation, country of origin, etc.).

And while far from a scholar on the complexities of the racial divide, I not only believe it deplorable when blacks are insulted, denigrated, stigmatized, etc., and barbaric when specific cops (and others) harass, brutalize and kill individuals without due provocation or subsequent punishment, I absolutely believe that the white power structure of the United States has been historically and systemically guilty of outright abuse and racism in many ways that have restricted African-Americans from equitably enjoying opportunities and freedoms.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Certainly this includes overtly horrifying examples such as slavery, lynchings, the KKK, segregation, "Whites Only" water fountains/rest rooms/restaurants, racial epithets, beatings, voting suppression, etc., etc., etc., but also to vast consequence, discriminatory mortgage lending practices established in the 1930s by the Federal Housing Administration, an agency of the U.S. government. (See this piece I posted a couple years ago.)

Due to "redlining," blacks were denied the ability to buy homes in many areas of the United States, and this meant that generational wealth--via real estate ownership--of African-Americans has lagged behind that of other citizens, with relegation to poorer areas also equating to generally inferior educational and employment opportunities.

Explaining all this may certainly seem like a rather odd, obtuse and extraneous way to begin a theater review.

But I believe much of the messaging of Antoinette Nwandu's new play, Pass Over--in a world premiere at Steppenwolf's upstairs theater--pertains to various elements of what I tried to address above.

And resonated with me as such.

Especially as the play openly uses metaphor, symbolism and allusion to make powerful & overt statements about African-American lives and authoritarian injustices that hamper their progress, I ultimately liked the play largely because I concur with what I think it is trying to say.

I believe this important to note because of the recent controversy regarding Hedy Weiss, longtime theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Her review of Pass Over included viewpoints that some denounced as racist, including Steppenwolf Theatre itself, which said in a statement:
"We denounce the viewpoints expressed in some of these reviews as they fail to acknowledge the very systemic racism that PASS OVER addresses directly. Particularly egregious are the comments from Sun Times critic Hedy Weiss, whose critical contribution has, once again, revealed a deep seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism."
The backlash against Weiss included a petition begun by the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition asking that theaters "not invite Hedy Weiss to the run of any present or future productions."

To me, several of the comments detractors have taken umbrage with in Weiss' reviews--and occasional in-person appearances--going back years are indeed egregiously offensive.

I won't defend her for beliefs I find quite objectionable, but must note that I never personally had perceived racist, homophobic, sexist, Islamophobic or body shaming remarks in her reviews until they were pointed out (with the caveat that I don't read her much, never having been a Sun-Times subscriber and preferring the Tribune's critic Chris Jones). 

That she seemingly has praised many works with African-American themes and performers may be besides the point, but I found only a few of the offending examples cited truly wretched. While I won't question anyone's outrage, I can also see where a few blatantly insulting phrases may have been "cherry picked" from among thousands of reviews (many of which feed theater marketing efforts with positive blurbs attributed to Weiss).

I'm getting a bit lost in the weeds here, but while I admire Steppenwolf for openly standing against racism, I had a problem with their blatant condemnation of Hedy Weiss as a theater that champions open expression and provocative statements. (I've been informed that, after dialogue between Steppenwolf and the Sun-Times, Weiss will continue to be invited with complimentary tickets.)

It made me wonder if I could comfortably see Pass Over and review it without worrying that any negativity might offend.

After now seeing it--and the behest of a friend with whom I had a good discussion--I'm wondering if my liking the play because it aligns with my sociopolitical beliefs is any more or less valid than Weiss taking issue with parts that didn't mesh with hers.

Which may still very well go beyond what a theatrical review should be assessing, but the point is not moot.

If you lean to the right and believe it proper to mention the proliferation of black on black crime anytime the epidemic of police brutality against African-Americans is decried, unless Pass Over changes your mind--which great theater can--chances are you won't embrace the play.

Certainly, as Weiss effusively praised, the acting in Pass Over--by Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker and Ryan Hallahan--is excellent.

And while I have never seen nor read Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, the way writer Nwandu has paralleled that absurdist work into a portrayal of two young African-American men hanging around a hardscrabble stretch of town while wishing to one day reach "the promised land" is clearly quite imaginative.

Though I had noted my Judaism at top, I am not observant and much of the play's religious symbolism--Hill's character is named Moses--likely went beyond my comprehension, but the dialogue is consistently compelling.

I won't reveal what happens when a white cop played by Hallahan shows up, but I found it in keeping with the statements the play seems to be making--given all-too-common viral videos of horrendous acts--without necessarily condemning all police officers.

My biggest issue with the play, dramatically, was the way another white character, named Mister (and also played by Hallahan), appears in a very unrealistic way.

What he represents--devilish duplicity, as I read it--is extremely powerful, but though I get that the play is to be taken as metaphorical, allegorical, symbolic, etc., more so than realistic, the gritty setting and streetwise dialogue between Moses and Kitch (Parker) captivated me with its glimpse into a world I don't see enough, even in my entertainments.

So the unnatural arrival of Mister felt too overt, a way largely for Nwandu to help get her point across without otherwise fitting into the scenario at hand, as unrealistic and referencing Waiting for Godot as it may have been.

One can certainly argue that anything is fair game in the realm of theater, but the truth is that I can't cogently explain precisely why I never felt Pass Over to be a @@@@@ (out of 5) play. And the truth is, I was perceiving it as likely a @@@1/2 play until a rather striking moment near the end kicked me in the gut and made me think something along the lines of, "Wow, that was really powerful. I get the point and agree with it."

Hence @@@@ for a play with a vital perspective and well-dramatized point of view.

At least to my way of thinking.

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