' ' Cinema Romantico: Pass Over

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Pass Over

Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” is “a provocative riff on ‘Waiting for Godot’”, to quote the blurb proffered by Steppenwolf Theatre where the stage play debuted last summer. Of course, the principals of Samuel Beckett’s play were waiting for someone to show up, while the principals of “Pass Over”, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker), are seeking to get up and go somewhere else – that is, passing over to the promised land. That, taken in conjunction with the name Moses, evokes “Pass Over’s” Biblical overtones, essentially envisoning African-Americans as modern day Israelites wandering in an urban wilderness, a parallel the play draws by stranding these two characters on a street corner on which they are mystically imprisoned. Nwandu, however, unmasks Biblical parables as colorful, comforting but ultimately empty vessels of verbiage, summarized in her exaggerated conclusion, not to be revealed, that despite its larger than life sensation cuts so deep to the bone it still imbues pointed emotional truth.

Those exaggerations are most prominently embodied in the play’s two white characters – Mister, seersucker suit sporting good ol boy with a picnic basket who seems to have taken a wrong turn in Dixie, and Ossifer, who functions as the nightstick wielding warden of Moses and Kitch’s metaphorical sidewalk cell, both of whom were played in the theatrical production by Ryan Hallahan. Ossifer, with his conspicuous CPD uniform, was destined to engender blowback. And so he did, not that we need to rehash the finer points of the Chicago critics’ community, though that blowback was generally born of a willful refusal to do precisely what the play is asking and look at these broad stereotypes through the eyes of its two black characters and how each case of typecasting has come in its own way to signify an overarching American system of de facto segregation. (Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” might be a wise choice for companion viewing.) Nowhere is that system as prominent as Chicago, where segregation has essentially been baked in since its modern reconstruction.

That divide, I suspect, is why Spike Lee chose to bus in black people from the south and west side of Chicago to see a performance of “Pass Over” and then film it for Amazon Studios. (That filmed version was just digitally released on Friday. You can watch for free with Amazon Prime.) Lee’s version, aside from adding a musical score as well as a brief prologue and epilogue showing the people he bused in, leaves the play virtually unchanged. The single difference comes on the production side wherein Lee chose to have Hallahan play only Mister while casting a different actor – Blake DeLong – to play Ossifer. DeLong is fine, but it’s an odd change, one negating the original intention of the black characters viewing all whiteness through the same lens. Still, this casting change does not undermine the finished version, which still achieves the same effect as the play with the added benefit of Lee’s fiery close-ups.

Onstage, the impressively rendered, deliberately sparse set just sort of seems to hang in the ether, accentuated by the black-lit background. But onscreen, when Lee cuts close to either Moses or Kitch, that black background is all you can see. And in their caustic, comic interactions, brilliantly played by Hill and Parker like they are an invisible rope tugging the other one when it’s his turn to speak, Moses and Kitch come across as having been on this corner for a long time, an eternity perhaps, signifying the eternal struggle of African-Americans. In that light, Lee’s close-ups make it seem as Moses and Kitch are drifting in space, completely detached from whatever is around them, suspended in some cosmic purgatory. And while the stage version allowed for the creepy effect of Mister and Offiser to appear from behind the two black characters, as if always there keeping watch, onscreen Lee frequently sets shots behind Mister, and usually from a low angle, eliciting the sensation of this master towering over his two subjects. Even so, whatever visual flourishes Lee added, none can compete with those black faces in the audience.

It is not that Lee explicitly makes them the point. He only occasionally cuts to them. But the audience I saw the play with was predominantly white, and Hallahan’s comments at the Q&A after the screening I saw of Lee’s filmed version seemed to suggest most of the shows contained predominantly white faces too. And in that context, the closing monologue, not to be revealed, as spoken by Hallahan’s Mister directly to the audience plays like a repulsive inside jokes among oppressors. Those words in Lee’s version, however, assume a different context. At the Q&A, Hallahan mentioned his monologue in front of a black audience as playing more like domination, and that might be true. But the monologue is a bout of, shall we say, sinister reassurement, and onscreen in front of that audience this reassurement seemed to me as much an encapsulation of a certain kind of Caucasian telling Black America that racism no longer exists.

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