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White folks! Prepare to squirm!

Steppenwolf’s Pass Over is unflinching on the war against young black men.

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Part of my job as a critic is to watch myself watch things. During the world premiere of Antoinette Nwandu's Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre, I watched myself squirm.

Paying homage to Waiting for Godot by rewriting it, Nwandu replaces Godot's Didi and Gogo with a couple of homeless young black men called Moses and Kitch. Where the originals massage their aching feet under a tree in the middle of nowhere, these two hang out beneath a streetlamp on a ghetto corner in an unnamed city, Moses using a deflated basketball as a pillow. They're every bit as bewildered, beleaguered, and bleakly funny as their progenitors, though. Every bit as hungry when they share an old crust of pizza. Every bit as hopeful when they talk about finally getting off the corner and passing over into some kind of good life.

Every bit as vulnerable too. Like Didi and Gogo, Moses and Kitch consider it a decent night when they don't get roughed up. Or they would, if such a night ever occurred. But here's the crucial difference: Didi and Gogo are held in place by a promise, the unseen Godot sending a messenger every day to inform them that he'll certainly show up tomorrow. The reinforcement for Moses and Kitch, on the other hand, is shockingly negative. Every time the pair work up the courage to take a step off their curb in search of the alternate world Jon Michael Hill's Moses drily calls "full potential," we hear the pop-pop of gunfire from the unseen po-po—police, with an uncanny knowledge of their intentions. Paralysis, here, is ballistically enforced.

Nwandu, it turns out, has an agenda that doesn't at all jibe with Godot's genteel philosophical pessimism. A white cop shows up in all his sociopathic glory to threaten, harass, and demean Moses and Kitch. They also get a visit from a white man in a white suit and a white panama hat (he took a wrong turn somehow on his way to mom's house), bearing the comically appropriate surname of "Master" and toting a supersize picnic basket full of all the culinary blessings of the American dream, from hamburgers and dim sum to collard greens in a silver salver and, of course, apple pie—sort of like Satan setting a feast before Jesus in the wilderness.

Though, as the play's title suggests, the more appropriate religious reference is Old Testament rather than New. Before she's done, Nwandu's absurdist pastiche has mutated into a latter-day reenactment of the exodus-from-Egypt story, and from there into pure protest: guerrilla-theater reductive (there are no exceptions made for "good" whites), but also guerrilla-theater powerful. Nwandu has written a true heart's cry of a play about what she's not alone in seeing as a deadly, racist national campaign against all our Moseses and Kitches.

And, yes, it made me squirm. Parts of me, anyway. The suburb-raised white part, for sure. But also the sentimental American part that gets misty over a tune from Oklahoma and wants to believe, with Walt Whitman, that "there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero." The part that wants to think all our sorrows are just convulsions toward a greater, fairer nation, on the verge of arriving any day now. The part that just wants somebody to say it ain't so, even though it clearly is. People will inevitably argue that black-on-black crime is the real scourge, and cops the first line of defense against it. But gangbangers didn't kill Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, or Eric Garner. Or Fred Hampton, for that matter. Nwandu has the authority of our shared experience behind her, and she doesn't flinch from rubbing our faces in it.

Last week I wrote about Parade, the paradoxically charming musical about a lynching, currently at Writers Theatre. Pass Over has surprising charms as well, for a play about race war. Danya Taymor's staging retains the sharp flavor of Beckettian patter while updating Beckettian vaudeville with a more modern, idiomatic physicality. Julian Parker is particularly vivid, continuing a string of hit-'em-where-they-ain't performances. Two autumns ago, for instance, in Charm, he built a great character on nearly inaudible mumbles; this time around, as Kitch, he defies hard-guy stereotypes with an occasionally girlish flirtatiousness. Under the circumstances, Hill's Moss ends up being the pole he dances around. Ryan Hallahan runs from slyly amusing to brutal in the thankless white roles.  v

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