The play that has given the Chicago theater world all its excitement this summer is Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over at Steppenwolf. I bought a ticket to get in on the action. Not too much has happened yet when shots ring out and the two young black protagonists, Moses and Kitch, throw themselves to the ground. The shots come from nowhere—without warning and from no visible source—but we think we know (well, I thought I knew; maybe you knew better) what they signify. Moses and Kitch are mired in a ghetto they long to escape, and ambient gangbanging is surely one reason why. But Nwandu soon sets us straight—in her play the guns belong to the cops. Whenever shots ring out and Moses and Kitch drop—a recurrent event—it’s the Man making sure these two boys stay right where they are.
So where are the gangbangers? Under the circumstances—Nwandu having put the idea in our heads (if inadvertently)—it’s a very reasonable question. But Hedy Weiss was not to be forgiven for raising it, in a review that admired Pass Over but not unconditionally enough.
“For all the many and varied causes we know so well,” wrote Weiss,”much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene.” Weiss continued, “And the playwright’s final scenes—including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story—and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s largely white ‘liberal’ audience—further rob the play of its potential impact.”
Nwandu’s response was to say Weiss “did a hatchet job on my play.” Steppenwolf went much further. Artistic director Anne Shapiro and executive director David Schmitz posted a statement on the theater’s Facebook page that threw the book at the Sun-Times’s drama critic:
Some of the critical responses from this work have been shocking—not because of the actual critique of the art, but in the way that the responses revealed at best the ignorance of the critic and at worst, a racial bias that, when captured in print, wounded many people of color in this community and their allies, and served as a horrendous reminder of how far we still have to come in terms of racial equity in this community.
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.
There’s obviously some history behind this, a file drawer of Weiss reviews in which bias allegedly bent judment. As a Philadelphia critic with an up-to-the-second laundry list put it, “There is no reason to assume the trail of racist, sexist, ableist, sizeist, and homophobic thought that is Weiss’s 30-plus-year career with the Sun-Times is going anywhere.”
Steppenwolf didn’t settle for saying Weiss was past her prime; it called her a clueless bigot. Let me tip the scales here by putting in a word of my own about those final scenes. Nwandu’s ending has the white racist cop receiving some sort of theatrically incoherent comeuppance that allows her two heroes a brief illusion of emancipation. But it’s immediately dispelled, in a twist less devastating than melodramatic. If you ask me, the way it condescends is in asking the audience to react with the mind-blown shock of college sophomores. The Tribune’s Chris Jones also had problems with the ending, and I hope Nwandu recognizes that there’s work to do.
But did the lightning storm over Weiss’s head blind Nwandu to Pass Over’s imperfections? Even the best art has its flaws, but Pass Over was defended against Weiss as something akin to Scripture—as a kind of newly revealed Truth that critics had a duty to proclaim, not to fault. Weiss was condemned for so flagrantly not getting Pass Over that she deserved to have to buy her own tickets from now on if she wanted to keep reviewing plays. Jones fared much better; but one of the most ardent and thoughtful responses to Weiss—by Monty Cole of Rescripted—said of Jones that he’s mired in the Chicago school of realism and wasn’t up to dealing with the “symbolism” of Nwandu’s “surrealist” and “magical” climax. I’d like to think surrealism isn’t beyond our understanding and certainly not beyond our criticism. Like realism, it works or it doesn’t.
Of course there was a counterreaction. My favorite riposte came from Dennis Byrne, conservative veteran of various Chicago dailies who in a Chicago Now piece said “an intolerant, shut-your-mouth attack” on Weiss had been launched by the “hard left.” I hope Shapiro and Schmitz got a laugh out of seeing their massive Halsted Street operation dismissed as the hard left—but maybe they didn’t. Creative people with seats to fill don’t like to be misunderstood.
I must say the audience the night I went to see Pass Over looked very little like the white, older, affluent Steppenwolf crowd I’m used to. It was young, racially mixed, and vehement—I felt among partisans who had no intention of being anything but celebratory. (My Hamilton audience was the same way.) It was an audience Steppenwolf obviously wants and needs, an audience fully aware of the Hedy Weiss debate and very likely summoned to the theater by it; and for reasons of age and race I doubted the legitimacy of anything I might have to add. So I decided that before I wrote anything I should bone up. That’s why I just read a book I should have read two years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s National Book Award-winning meditation on blackness, Between the World and Me. I’m not saying she did, but if Nwandu wrote her play with Coates’s short book sitting open on her desk, I wouldn’t be surprised.
I closed the book respecting Nwandu’s play even more than I did when I opened it.
Consider the gang-bangers, ignored by Nwandu but front and center in the early pages of Coates’s book and a corrosive part of his boyhood. “When I was your age the only people I knew were black,” Coates writes, remembering on his son’s behalf his own fearful boyhood navigating his small portion of Baltimore. “and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.” Coates is instructing his boy in Ghetto 101. “The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world. . . . I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear.”
And he tells us, “The crews, the young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage, were the greatest danger. . . . It was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power. They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies.”
These were the young men whose fear and rage and oppressiveness Hedy Weiss wished Nwandu had acknowledged. But Coates remembers them, if vividly, as dead-enders, like Coates himself and like Moses and Kitch in Nwandyu’s play. “We could not get out,” Coates writes. “The ground we talked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out.”
Like Moses and Kitch—like everybody around him—Coates lived in fear. “My father beat me for letting another boy steal from me,” Coates tells his son. “Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out. I was a capable boy, intelligent, well-liked, but powerfully afraid. And I felt, vaguely, wordlessly, that for a child to be marked off for such a life, to be forced to live in fear, was a great injustice.”
Nwandu wrote her play about lives stunted by this fear and injustice. Coates traces the fear to its source but Nwandu begins at that source, presuming an audience not in need of remedial instruction. Modeling Pass Over after Waiting for Godot is a nice touch: Vladimir and Estragon could not go on, Moses and Kitch cannot get out, and audiences familiar with Beckett’s play are primed to admire Nwandu’s riff on it. Even if we catch only half of Nwandu’s crackling ghetto speak, we know where these two are going—nowhere.
But although Vladimir and Estragon are still spinning their wheels when act two of Godot ends, Nwandu has a much more decisive climax up her sleeve. Her equivalents of Pozzo and Lucky—two parts played by one white actor—don’t simply pass through, embodying the world’s brutal indifference; they threaten, patronize, and ultimately annihilate Moses and Kitch. Mere stasis is too gentle a fate for these emblematic young African-Americans.
Coates would have no argument with Nwandu over where ultimate responsibility lies. Describing inquiries he made into the death of a college friend shot by a cop, he writes, “I was told that the citizens were more likely to ask for police support than to complain about brutality. I was told that the black citizens of [Prince George’s County, Virginia] were comfortable and had ‘a certain impatience” with crime. I had seen these theories before. . .” But he tells his son, “‘Black-on-black’ crime is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel [to red-liners]. And this should not surprise us. The plunder of black life was once drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return. . . .To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.”
That’s pretty clearly what Nwandu thinks too. And ultimately, her play preaches what Coates believes, that it’s not the cop’s finger squeezing the trigger either. Coates’s book is more expansive and generous, but as it nears its end we find him as forlorn as she is. “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.”
Coates’s Dreamers are the Americans who call themselves white and cling to the pipe dream of an America above and beyond, a dream that can be sustained only by willful blindness. Coates comes to a conclusion no less despairing than Nwandu’s: “I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free.”
It’s a choice that some of us see Dreamers in today’s America actually making, and it’s an appalling sight. But that’s why the reaction to Weiss’s review is distressing. It apes the enemy. In an era destined to bear the name of a raging bully, angry artists responded in kind: they formed a pack and assailed someone who said something out of line. Something called the Chicago Theater Accountability Project says it exists to execute the prim task of ridding Chicago theater of “inappropriate language or behavior.” If that’s hard left rhetoric, Mike Pence is a Bolshevik. But it was the CTAP that posted a petition asking theaters to pledge to cut Weiss down to size.
Given that “she is not willing to work with us to create a positive environment”—which she’d allegedly proven time and again “with the racism, homophobia and body shaming found in her reviews”—from now on Hedy Weiss could pay her own way.
I’m sorry to say Nwandu signed the petition.
Steppenwolf did not—but the dressing down it gave Weiss on Facebook was bad enough. When someone bends that far over backwards to show they get it and are among the enlightened and speak for the downtrodden, the world has a way of laughing at them. Even the friends who love them do. Theaters shouldn’t sound like parents storming into a third grade classroom to harangue the teacher who sent home a “needs improvement.”