The Live On Broadway Experience: Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over
On a lovely Tuesday night in late September, I finally stepped inside a Broadway theatre for the first time in over eighteen months. It was quite the experience. I had found myself, I guess one could say, stranded in Ontario, Canada, far from the lockdown on Broadway, yet dreaming about the time when I could re-enter this theatrical land that I love. I had visions of what it might look like; feel like, but I must say that I was not prepared for the momentous feeling that would wash over me as I flashed my Ontario vaccination card and I.D. at the door, and walked into the August Wilson Theatre on 52nd Street to see Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s spectacularly intense and funny play, Pass Over. The entry, much like the play, felt heavy and a bit disconcerting, I must admit. I wasn’t used to the awkward weirdness of the current theatre experience, nor the proximity of others, but I breathed through it. I thought I’d be crying with joy, and in a way I was, somewhere inside, but the overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by SO MANY people was still a bit foreign to me, and the complexity and intricacy of the play filled me with a strange and intoxicating blend of connection and disturbance. Which, I must add, is the highest praise possible.
It’s an combination of forces, part Samuel Beckett existentialism, part Exodus, with a large protesting edge centered around the ideals of Black Lives Matter movement and the heightened awareness of racial profiling and police brutality, all layered on the strong shoulders of two young Black men stranded on a street corner dreaming of passing over to a safer land and a better future. Pass Over, the play, swings large yet small, with subtle gestures of abstractionism and intense internalized meaning, played out authentically and symbolically by the two central characters named Moses and Kitch in both language and movement. Their banter and jabs resonate, all under a streetlamp positioned in just a way that I couldn’t help but register as a dangerous tree branch in the South. The two are stuck, much like the characters in Waiting For Godot, engaged in an endless dialogue of captivating play and sudden assumed positions of terror that pull us into their orbit, whether we understand the conceptualizations or not.
They talk about the dream of passing over, but find the exciting fantasy societally dangerous and deadly, and somewhere deep inside the rage and trauma, a dark and disturbing canvas is painted and remixed like a abstract collage. Playwright Nwandu unearthed Pass Over after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, finding a concept and language to register the terror inside our structure, and layering on the ideals and teachings of the Exodus story to make a stronger point. It’s compelling and disruptive, this unpacking of shared trauma, and we can feel the inequality of America holding these two men back, forcing them by racial injustice to stay in their assigned roles, as if attached to that streetlamp tree by some invisible but strong chain, made up of fear and confusion of what would await them if they stand up and Pass Over.
Directed with a determined gaze by Danya Taymor (PH’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning), Pass Over delivers abstractionism in the guise of authenticism, and the formula finds its strong footing fast and furiously within the first few minutes. The two central characters, Moses (who is usually played by Jon Michael Hill (Broadway’s Superior Donuts)), is portrayed with vigor by Alphonso Walker Jr. (Kansas City Rep’s Native Son) in the performance I saw earlier this week, alongside the miraculous Namir Smallwood (LCT’s Pipeline) as his sidekick buddy, Kitch. Their connection is as clear as Godot, and just like that Beckett landscape, things staunter forward with the ease of going nowhere, quite beautifully. That is until a man in a white suit, referred to as Mister/Ossifer in the program, floats in to their shared space with a relaxed sense of entitlement. Played meticulously by the wonderfully agile Gabriel Ebert (Broadway’s Thérèse Raquin), the man personifies layers and layers of white privilege and liberal unawaredness, to say the least, and so much more. He’s like a white red riding hood on the way to his sick mother’s house with a basket of food, giving an uncomfortable bent symbol of racial stereotyping. But does this mean, in the eyes of white entitled culture that these two black men who live in on the corner are some sort of wolves in waiting? Is that what racist societal formulations are trying to tell us, or sell us? It’s a disturbing idea to juggle and play with, and I’m thinking that is Nwandu and Taymor’s proposition, especially as words and phrases are dropped casually out of the white man’s mouth; statements that make us sit up in discomfort and alarm, that instill fear for the two men’s safety against historical oppression. They want us to hear the casual comments and be alarmed, to feel the threat, veiled in the polite rebuttal. The writing, and the direction, is just so smart in these cringe-worthy moments, slapping us awake and giving us the sting.
In the midst of the pandemic and the death of George Floyd, the two characters Ebert plays on this tremendous stage; a racist police officer and a rich man named Master lost in the woods, elicit a response that is electric and uncomfortable, especially as the world evolves into something completely organic and unique, thanks to some epic design work by scenic designer Wilson Chin (PH’s The Thanksgiving Play), costume designer Sarafina Bush (Greenwich House’s Broadway Bounty Hunter), lighting designer Marcus Doshi (Second Stage’s Linda Vista), and sound designer Justin Ellington (LCT’s The Rolling Stone). The play gets you worked up and confused, somewhat, but in that brilliant manner that makes you want to unpack the puzzle for hours and days beyond. It’s exactly what is needed in theatre, especially a Broadway house: a play that doesn’t soothe our senses, but makes us itch inside the shock of discomfort, especially those liberal white audience members that can’t believe these things still happen in our world. There is a lot to sit up and take notice in, as we watch such a powerful piece of theatre on a Broadway stage. I just hope it’s the continual parting of the seas, this Pass Over, and not an artificial flash in the pan brought forth out of a temporary P.R. need, but forgotten once the light fades. Fingers crossed this is just the beginning, a passing over to a new way of engaging on the Broadway stage, a space where this play truly does belongs.