“Filmed play” has never been a pulse-quickener. Best case, the term conjures memories of the 1970s American Film Theatre productions that attempted to find crackling cinema in old and new theater classics. Alas, even with some of the most distinguished filmmakers of that era at the helm, none of those movies could replicate the one-of-a-kind charge audiences get from seeing these works up on their feet, live, in a theater.
There will never be a substitute for inhabiting the same space as a talented group of actors tearing into a tempestuous new play, but by placing his cameras on stage with his actors (and in the house for sparingly used cutaways to the audience), Spike Lee has captured in Pass Over both the electrifying intimacy of actors deep in the moment and the communal power of live theater. Shot in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre during the show’s summer 2017 run, Lee manages to be more participant than interloper in Danya Taymor’s production of Antoinette Nwandu’s righteously pissed off riff on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. His role here is to bring the urgency of Nwandu’s work – brought brilliantly to life by actors Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker – blasting through whatever screen you choose to watch it on. It’s an entirely new kind of experience from one of our finest filmmakers, a Stop Making Sense for the American theater.
Pass Over is set on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and 64th Street in an unnamed city that feels an awful lot like Chicago. This turf belongs to two young men, Moses (Hill) and Kitch (Parker), who while away the hours talking mad shit and fantasizing about a high-roller lifestyle far away from the harsh halogen glow of the corner streetlamp. They can’t stay lost in their reveries long. The streets won’t let them. One second they’re joking about ordering up room-service caviar, the next they’re flat on the pavement as gunfire explodes nearby. It’s a well-rehearsed routine, but it will never be routine for Moses and Kitch; they may not be brimming with hope, but they’re not looking to catch bullets like way too many of their friends (and, in Moses’s case, his brother North).
Nwandu’s stylized writing casts a heightened spell over the proceedings, and Taymor’s starkly minimal stage design gives the block the uneasy feel of a concrete limbo. This strangeness topples over into absurdity when a seriously lost white man (Ryan Hallahan) in a white suit and a white hat talking whiter than any white man has talked strays onto their turf. Moses and Kitch hit their defensive postures, threatened not so much by the man but by the egregious whiteness of him. But he’s friendly and (oddly) at ease, and gradually convinces the young men to join him for a meal from the outlandishly large picnic basket he’s been lugging around in search of his sick mother’s house. Moses and Kitch can’t shake the suspicion that he’s the wolf in this scenario, but the abundance and seeming deliciousness of his fare – particularly the collard greens and pinto beans that Moses had been dreaming of just minutes before this weirdo arrived – are too tempting to turn down. They’ve just begun to dig in when the man introduces himself: his name is Master. Ever seen a food spit-take?
Master assures the young men that it’s a family name, and that they needn’t get worked up over something as innocuous as a name. It’s just a word. And while they’re on the subject, Master, suddenly getting bolder, decides to ask why Moses uses that one word. The forbidden one. The one Master can’t say. Starts with an “n”. It’s the first real sign of conflict, and the tension skyrockets when Master is informed that he can’t say the word because “It’s not yours.” His shrieked response cuts right through you. “Everything’s mine!”
Master wisely moves on, and while Moses and Kitch are well rid of him, his visit has been useful in that it’s given them the idea that if they adopt a refined white manner of speaking like his, the police won’t harass them anymore because they won’t recognize them. They’re not far into their rehearsal when “the po-po” shows up in the form of a nightstick-swinging nightmare replete with mirrored sunglasses. The officer orders Moses and Kitch to the pavement, denigrates them (“stupid, lazy, violent thug”) and, having reinforced their sense of worthlessness, leaves them to their trauma.
As Moses rolls onto his back to gather his senses, Lee cuts to an overhead close-up, which brought me into the character’s terrified state of mind while reminding me that I’m watching a movie of the play and, well, how did he get that shot out without interrupting the performance? Obviously, I know how he could’ve pulled it off, but being reminded in Moses’s moment of anguish that I’m watching a stage play being performed live in front of an audience without getting taken out of that moment – on the contrary, possibly amplifying his horror – was an altogether new experience to me. It’s a stunning achievement. There are four levels of impeccable craft on display in Pass Over (Nwandu’s, Taymor’s, the actors’ and Lee’s), and they’re all exhilaratingly in sync. I don’t know how much prep time Lee had with the actors given that this production was still running at the time (greatly limiting the availability of the performers and the space), but, watching his film, it feels like he’d been a part of the show since day one.
Lee’s certainly been a part of this dialogue for a long time, and it’s thrilling to see him hook into turbulent material from a talented young writer eager to throw some dramatic haymakers of her own. Nwandu’s not out here to reassure or offer up false hope; she’s been paying attention, and she knows what young African-Americans are up against. Though Nwandu gives Moses and Kitch a well-earned moment of triumph near the end, she knows she has to take it all away from them. Beckett’s Didi and Gogo have it easy. No one’s watching them. No one cares. Moses and Kitch, however, are under close observation. They’re captives. And the moment they try to stray from the block, the outside world will stand its ground and knock them down to the pavement for good.