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Jon Michael Hill talks Off-Broadway's 'Pass Over,' TV's 'Elementary'

Jon Michael Hill stars in Antoinette Nwandu's play

Jon Michael Hill stars in Antoinette Nwandu's play "Pass Over" at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater. Photo Credit: Lincoln Center Theater

Jon Michael Hill may be used to working with Sherlock Holmes on TV, but onstage he’s dealing with crimes of a different sort.

As Det. Marcus Bell on CBS’ “Elementary,” Hill helps catch the bad guys, but in the new Off-Broadway play “Pass Over,” by on-the-rise playwright Antoinette Nwandu — which opens at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater on June 18, running through July 15 — he shows what it’s like to be considered the bad guy, whether you’ve committed a crime or not.

In this modern-day mash-up of “Waiting for Godot” and “Exodus,” we meet Moses (Hill), a young man who dreams of escaping his inner-city neighborhood, his buddy Kitch (Namir Smallwood), and a strange white man (Tony winner Gabriel Ebert) who wanders onto their block toting a picnic basket. Things get intense — and unpredictable — pretty quickly.

Hill, 32, a native of Waukegan, Illinois, was in college when he was tapped to join Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He later scored a Tony nomination for his performance in the Broadway play “Superior Donuts.” He spoke recently with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

When the audience first enters the theater, you’re already onstage, lying on the ground with a hoodie over your head.

It’s pretty awful to be stuck under there. After lying on your back for 15 minutes . . . to pop up and have your mind sharp. The dialogue moves at a blistering pace.

I heard the playwright say that the shooting of Trayvon Martin inspired her to write this play, to shed light on violence against black men. Do you think we can change that troubling dynamic?

I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like there’s been much movement on policing reform and mass incarceration reform. Trump met with Kim Kardashian [on this issue at the White House] — I’m not sure how she’s an expert. That seemed more for the photo op. But I am hopeful about . . . bridging the gap between underserved communities and the police force. Look — it could be done in a second if most of America decided they wanted it to happen.

I feel a little foolish here but, well — want to hear my white guy “woke” moment from this play?

Let’s hear it! [He laughs.]

There’s a lot of use of the N-word in this show. And at one point the white guy onstage raises a point we often hear — if people of color can say the N-word, then why can’t I? Have you had conversations with people about that?

Sure.

The play answers by asking the white character why he feels he should be able to say every word out there. Why can’t' there be words that, because of history, he just can’t say now? At first, it didn’t seem fair. But then it reminded me just how much the culture is geared toward me, how I’m used to being able to do or say anything.

It’s a complicated conversation. It comes up . . . a lot because of music, and parents have to curb their kids’ listening to it. Then they start using it in school, and ask, “But why can’t I say it? It’s in the song.” And then you have to have that conversation. But it’s a conversation that has to be had. We all need to know where we come from, what this country is going through, and wrestle with that. It’s hard as an actor . . . to say the N-word that many times in front of a white audience. It makes them uncomfortable.

Spike Lee filmed your performance in the Chicago production [now streaming on Amazon Prime]. What was that like?

We didn’t have a lot of interaction with him. He’s very direct, opinionated. It was interesting watching him work with the cameramen. He set up 11 or 13 cameras all over the house, and paid attention to composition — the frame of every shot. He was relentless with them, finding the best picture. It was masterful.

I guess Moses is a far cry from Det. Marcus Bell of “Elementary.”

Very different.

I like the way, in “Elementary's” version of the Sherlock saga, the police aren’t depicted as complete buffoons. You’re one of the few detectives to work with a Sherlock who actually has a brain.

That was important to the show’s creators — that we didn’t make the NYPD look like a bunch of doofuses. This series, from the beginning, was going to be about the team around this exceptional human. And how he actually elevates everybody’s skill level, everybody’s game. As the seasons have gone on, it’s become a tighter, well-oiled unit. It’s been an interesting journey.

And the journey continues. I hear you got renewed.

Yeah, we’re going to do a seventh season. It’s going to be fun.

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