Jon Michael Hill attending the Opening Night Performance of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Jon Michael Hill was playing football in high school back in Illinois, his teammates nicknamed him “Hollywood” because “I was also doing school plays and they sort of tapped me as one of those guys they might see on TV one day.  I wasn’t one of the cool kids but I sort of knew everybody.  Everybody knew who I was because I was involved in so many different things. Football. The track team. Speech team. Drama. Band.”    

Those teammates were right about the television show — Hill appeared as Detective Marcus Bell for seven seasons from 2012-2019 on the CBS police procedural Elementary — but “Broadway” would have been a better nickname for this remarkably talented theatre artist.  He was nominated for a Tony for his first appearance on Broadway in Superior Donuts in 2010, the same year he began another television role as Detective Damon Washington in Detroit 1-8-7. (Hmm, maybe those high school teammates were right.) In August though, he and his fellow cast members in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s play Pass Over, Namir Smallwood and Gabriel Ebert, were the first actors to be working again on a Broadway stage after COVID shut it down for over a year.  To say they reignited the theatre district in New York is not an overstatement. 

Directed by Danya Taymor, the production won a rave from The New York Times critic Jesse Green, who wrote:Having survived pandemic jitters (so far) and its own circuitous path to get there, it emerged like a star: in top shape, at full throttle and refreshed by some artful doctoring. If it seems strange to talk about a tragedy in such terms, keep in mind that though Pass Over is forthrightly centered on the plight of two young Black men in an urban police state, its ambition is so far-reaching that it embraces (and Danya Taymor’s thriller of a production, succeeds as) comedy, melodrama and even vaudeville. In that, it emulates the vision and variety of its most direct sources: Waiting for Godot, the Samuel Beckett play about tramps biding their time in eternity, and the Book of Exodus, about an enslaved people seeking the Promised Land.” 

I saw the production in an earlier iteration at the small upstairs Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center Theater after the show had already been seen at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company where Hill and Smallwood had earlier appeared in True West, a play that sometimes sends its own echoes through this current production as the two actors ricochet off one another in thrilling and disturbing ways. An earlier version of Pass Over was even filmed by Spike Lee and can be seen on Amazon Prime.   

Nwandu has more than artfully doctored her remarkable work from its earlier productions; she has outfitted it now with an ending that is transcendent in its heavenly hopefulness. Green cited Beckett as a source of inspiration but now it seems as if Beckett had read some works by Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler and listened to some Sun Ra. Indeed, when I mentioned this to Hill when we talked via Zoom, he told me of how he and the cast listen to music to warm up each night. “There is an emotional element too with the music I choose to listen to beforehand.  A lot of it has been very spiritual stuff.  There is something about how my character Moses gives himself over to being ‘Moses’ and leading his friend off the block that lends itself to spiritual music.” He paused and smiled — well, grinned is a better description of the lovely bit of rascality that fleetingly erupted across his face which he can summon as well with such subtle keenness in this latest role. “And, yeah, I’ve been listening to a lot of Sun Ra,” he says.  “We listen to a lot of jazz together as a cast. We actually pick a genre or an artist before every performance to sort of inspire our choices each night. I think tonight might be a Sun Ra night.” 

Hill has appeared as Puck in two productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — one in Central Park as part of The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park and the other at the Houston Grand Opera in composer Benjamin Britten’s version of the play. He was rather Puckish when I mentioned Sun Ra, but when I asked why he’d been cast twice as Puck, he seemed a bit baffled. “It’s so funny. I am not mischievous in my life. I am not in other people’s business and Puck is really meddling. I think it is mostly the imagination and agility.  I just sort of have a creative imagination and I try to be physically agile and those things lend themselves to Shakespeare. I think that is where the similarity ends with Puck and me.” 

Here are five more questions I asked him.   

You are now performing Pass Over for a Broadway audience.  That can mean many things.  But one of them is alas that it could mean a whiter audience — even though there are so many African American playwrights represented in this upcoming season and there is hope that a more diverse Broadway audience will follow them to their theaters. Can you feel the difference though when the audience for Pass Over is mostly white?  

Yes. And it’s not just this audience on Broadway. Before when we did the play at Steppenwolf, I was asking if we were going to try and continue to get more Black people in the audience. Simply because having a diverse audience when there are many different reactions happening — well, I think that is simply the most beautiful iteration of theatre and what it can be: everyone is having the same experience but a completely different experience as to what they are bringing to the play. But, yeah, we can feel it when the audience is mostly white.   

It’s kind of strange both ways. Because there are things we have to do up there that I feel sorry if there are five Black people and the rest of the audience is white. I feel bad that they have to sit in that room. An example of that is the first scene with the policeman when I sort of get assaulted sexually. Just having them have to sit there and watch something that perhaps they’ve experienced in their lives with the police. I know I’ve had run-ins with the police. That seems like it could be triggering. You never know what people are going through watching something like that. But, yeah, we can tell.    

I’m probably more aware than I should be of everything that’s happening in the theatre. I’ve always been that way since high school. Some actors can sort of do the soft focus and not really worry about what’s happening in the audience. I am way too ultra-aware of it.    

When you got cast in Elementary, you were basically a kid but after seven seasons you and the character ended up a mature man. Did you, in fact, mature along with your character? 

I hope so. I hope I learned what I require of myself to deliver during a process. I know very early on I had a late night.  It was pretty much the only time I was late showing up. It was in Season One, maybe Episode Five. I was late to the set and they had to sort of move things around and everybody was kind of worried about how I was doing. And my acting wasn’t good in that scene. I was a little hungover. And I was like: this can’t happen. And it didn’t happen again. I think I matured in that way.   

But like on the football team, my coaches wanted me to step into a vocal leadership role because I was more a lead-by-example type guy. I think the years on Elementary, I didn’t get bored because I sort of poured myself into every aspect of that production shadowing the producers and directors so that I would be ready to direct if they finally gave me the opportunity. And I felt more at home in that role when I did get the opportunity to direct than I thought I would. I don’t seek out leadership roles, but when it came along I felt at home in it. And I’m hoping to do it more in the future — directing, producing, making the storytelling happen, setting a tone.   

Antoinette’s play has been compared to Beckett and Shepard and you’re performing in a theatre named for one of our greatest playwrights, August Wilson, who might himself wander artistically through the play in moments.  All of these comparisons are to men however.  And Pass Over was written by a woman even though it is about three men filled — cursed even maybe — with testosterone.  And yet her female presence is also infused throughout the play.  There are so many layers in this play, so much artistic layering already. But were you aware of embodying both the female presence and the male one in your work?

They talked to us a lot about the female body and where that lives in these guys and where they give themselves permission to embody that. Is it only when they are playing their games that they play to cope with what they are going through? She talks a lot about the presence of God in the play. The way she describes it to us is that there are two things working. There is Father Time. These guys are in this endless loop and that is sort of the masculine energy. And then there is Mother Earth that comes along during the play that Moses sort of summons. And that feminine energy is what brings that rebirth at the end and the promised land sprouts up. They wanted us to continue to explore that. We danced around. We played games. We did all kinds of stuff in rehearsal to make sure the feminine lived in this play.   

You have said that art makes you see something differently.  What is the something that you saw differently when art affected you in your own life?   

It depends on what you’re bringing to it when you’re going to see something and whether you’re open to seeing something differently.  But some plays are able to knock down a wall for you that you didn’t know was there.  That happened to me when I saw one of Tarell McCraney’s plays, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, when he was still at Yale.  I was up there doing one of the Steppenwolf shows that Anna Shapiro directed but I was sitting in on classes, too, and I got to see that play. That was the first time I saw everyday Black people onstage and it wasn’t didactic. It was complex and complicated and funny and devastatingly heartbreaking. I got to see Black people represented in their full selves for the first time. And that made me think about what theatre could really be. And what it could do. I think theatre has that power and can do that for people.   

As for Pass Over, let’s talk about that new ending. A lot of people don’t like that the cop is forgiven and finds redemption. That’s a real sticking point for some people. Some people are able to find their way to it and say that there has to be a path and a way forward for us as a people and a country.  And some people are like: No, man, he didn’t get enough of a comeuppance. Antoinette had to talk to me about forgivingness and how you don’t have to deserve it to receive it. Some people don’t think the cop deserves it, but he receives grace.   

Who are some of your heroes?  

Harry Belafonte. Viola Davis. I love what she is doing with her production company. As for acting, I think of Daniel Day-Lewis and Jeffrey Wright. I hope to do work like them. I think they are chameleons. I wish I had the swag of Denzel. I love the Coen Brothers and their films. Spike Lee. A writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Then there’s Medgar Evers. And John Lewis – God rest his soul. If I could have met John Lewis, that would have done it for me.