For a play with just four characters and a single, sparsely furnished set, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over” feels almost momentous — even historic. This is in part due to the timing of its arrival on Broadway, as the first new production to open after the unprecedented 16-month closing of the theaters due to the pandemic.
But it has more to do with the nature of this powerful and profoundly meaningful play, which presents, through a brilliant combination of surrealism and naturalism, a stylized portrait of Black lives in 21st century America, or at least of two archetypal members of the Black underclass. In holding up a dark funhouse mirror to the brutal extremes of Black life, Nwandu’s play transcends its theatrical form to become a poetic meditation that almost defies classification. It’s not so much a play as an experience, and a Broadway landmark of a unique kind.
The play, which was previously seen Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater, is loosely modeled on “Waiting for Godot.” Its two central characters, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood), are Black men who appear to be perpetually stranded in some stark urban no-man’s-land, with just a lamppost (redolent of the lone tree in “Godot”), a tire and a few scraps of clothing for company. Every day they wake — only one sleeps at a time — to face the same blank future, their only hope to simply get off the street, a hope that they seem too paralyzed by hard experience to bring about.
They pass the time indulging in fantasies of “passing over” to the “promised land,” playing a game in which they enumerate all the comforts they look forward to acquiring when they get there, whether it be a humble drawerful of clean socks (Moses) or a pair of new — not used — Air Jordans (Kitch). But interrupting their games is a harsher reality, namely their existence as poor Black men, ever at the mercy of the “po-pos,” as they call the police. At intervals the dialogue stops, and ominous sounds are heard, suggesting the possible advent of the “po-pos” and their threatening, potentially fatal questions: “Who are you boy?” and “You going somewhere?”
Despite the bleak setting, and the hardship of the characters’ lives, the play is infused with biting humor, as when Moses, in one of his dreams of what might constitute his personal promised land, adds “world peace” to the list, as if mimicking pageant contestants of yore. Or when, handing over a crust of pizza to Kitch — their only available sustenance for now — Moses cracks, “It’s not delivery, it’s DiGiorno’s.”
The blazing rapport between Moses and Kitch, whose exchanges throughout have the musical rhythms of rap or hip hop, provides its own lively measure of laughs as they chaff each other to make the time pass more quickly — or at least pass. Hill and Smallwood are portraying different characters, obviously, but their performances often fuse to become almost a single one: taking their spiritual brotherhood into a dimension that speaks beautifully of the way Black men (and women) can find solace in shared sorrows, and joys.
Hill’s Moses is the more cynical and serious, but even when his character seems to be sinking into moroseness, Hill emanates a quiet radiance that speaks of the deep spiritual resources and untapped power within him, overtly suggested by his name. (They often, half-mockingly, half-not, speak of Moses as a descendent of the Biblical figure who, of course, led his people out of Egypt to salvation.) As Kitch, Smallwood has a bouncing energy that sends him shooting across the stage, almost borne aloft when he can indulge in the daydreams of a life of luxury.
Like “Godot,” “Pass Over” is a play in which nothing appears to happen for long stretches, but only rarely does the energy flag, thanks to the sheer ebullience of the performances, and equally to the superb direction of Danya Taymor, who negotiates the play’s varied aesthetic approaches and switches in mood with phenomenal aplomb.
Eventually, as in “Godot,” a visitor does arrive, in the unlikely person of a dapper white man (a terrific Gabriel Ebert) who says he has become lost on his way to deliver a sumptuous meal to his mother. This apparently innocuous figure — “gee” and “golly” pepper his conversation almost as much as the N-word seasons Moses and Kitch’s — eventually cajoles his new acquaintances into eating the food he had intended for his mother, a friendly gesture that turns chilling when he casually reveals that his given name is Master.
Here the play takes a swerve into the truly surreal, as the ghosts of plantation life swarm the stage, or at least the haunted psyches of Moses and Kitch. This leads to one of the most chilling moments, as they all spar over the use of the N-word, resulting in an outburst from Master that encapsulates an underlying theme of the play: that the world belongs to the white man, and Black people only have the right to live on its fringes and pray for the day they can pass over to some mythical “promised land.”
Later, in fact, the phrase “pass over” will take on a second, more ominous meaning, as Moses and Kitch begin to lose faith in their daily dreams of getting up off the street and “living up to their potential” — a phrase that Moses uses sincerely, but which has the mocking ring of the way white people have patronized Black men. Death becomes, for Moses and Kitch, a more palatable alternative to the endless death-in-life they are doomed to lead.
Nwandu addresses, sometimes obliquely and sometimes bluntly, many of the painful conversations that have come in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement that subsequently gained steam. Moses and Kitch discuss whether they should abandon their affectionate (not to say constant) use of the N-word, as a way to signal to the white world that they are not figures of cultural stereotype. Later they run down a long list of the people they know — Moses’s brother among them — who have been killed by the police. But the play never feels either polemical or didactic, because Nwandu infuses it so richly with mystery and surprise. The play addresses the brutalities of Black lives today, but it does so through the lens of Nwandu’s formidable imagination and equally formidable skill.
A playwright with lesser gifts might not attempt — to say nothing of get away with — the play’s breathtaking ending, in which Biblical truths seem to materialize before our eyes. And, perhaps most astonishingly, despite the cruelty and suffering we have witnessed, this final scene is marked by an unexpected grace and benevolence, even a suggestion that the world as it is constituted today — marked by division and racism — may one day pass away, to reveal a better, brighter one, a new Eden you might even say.
“Pass Over” opened at the August Wilson Theatre on August 22, 2021.
Review photo: Joan Marcus
Creative: Written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu; Directed by Donya Taymor; Set Design by Wilson Chin; Costume Design by Sarafina Bush; Lighting Design by Marcus Doshi; Sound Design by Justin Ellington.
Producers: Matt Ross, Jujamcyn Theaters, Lincoln Center Theater, Concord Theatricals, Madeleine Foster Bersin, Imagine Equal Entertainment, Cornice Productions, Madison Wells Live, Shelly Mitchell, Tyler Mount & Maddie Reese, Olympus Theatricals & FireMused Productions, Heidi Schreck & Jose Antonio Vargas, Sierra Lancaster, Vasthy Mompoint, Ayanna Prescod, Nina Marie Ward, Renee Montgomery, Blair Underwood, Heidi Schreck & Jose Antoinio Vargas and Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu.
Cast: Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood and Gabriel Ebert.