With all the critical acclaim that has greeted Antoinette Nwandu’s work, you would expect that she has been writing plays since she was very young. However, she admits that she started relatively later in life.
“I started writing plays in general actually pretty late for a playwright,” she said. “It was after college. I thought I was going to be an English professor. I developed the urge to write plays at the end of college, and then in grad school. It just sort of blossomed.” She points to Samuel Beckett and Suzan Lori-Parks as playwrights whose work helped fuel her passion for the medium.
Nwandu did in fact achieve her original dream of becoming an English teacher. The Harvard and Tisch School of the Arts graduate taught English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College for seven years. It was, in part, because of some of the students she met there that she decided to write the play “Pass Over.” The play channels Samuel Beckett’s classic “Waiting for Godot.” A filmed version of “Pass Over,” directed by Spike Lee, is available on Amazon Video.
Featuring just three actors on one minimalist set, it is a powerful comment on the way that law enforcement in the United States circumscribes the lives of Black people. The main characters are two relatively young homeless men in the inner city named Moses and Kitch played, respectively, by Jon Michael Hill of the CBS series “Elementary” and Namir Smallwood, who recently starred in another Lincoln Center Theater production, Dominique Morrisseau’s “Pipeline.” There is a police officer who drifts in and out of their lives, bringing nothing but menace for the most part. The only other character is a seemingly oblivious, well-off, folksy white man named Master. Both the police officer and Master are portrayed by Gabriel Ebert.
Master ends up with Moses and Kitch after making a wrong turn somewhere on the way to meeting his mother. In practice it seems, many law enforcement officers see their jobs as preventing people such as Moses and Kitch getting “off the block” and making any wrong turns that would land them in Master’s neighborhood.
As if stuck in an asphalt purgatory, day in and day out, Moses and Kitch proclaim to each other that they will “get off the block” but never do. Their movement or mobility is constrained by an unacknowledged, unarticulated—even to themselves—fear. What will the system do to them if they attempt to leave? The play was caught up in a storm of controversy during its Chicago run when a critic suggested that it was missing an “all sides matter” angle. That is, the play failed to talk about the young men’s culpability in perpetuating their own dire circumstances. But that isn’t what “Pass Over” is about. Nwandu’s play attempts to explore root issues and resulting impacts of race dynamics in America, particularly between descendants of the enslaved and the descendants of their masters.
The play does address the men’s relationship with themselves and their own spiritual identities from an existential viewpoint. Will they see themselves as the world sees them, or will they dare to step into their own power as individuals? The influence of Nwandu’s heavily religious upbringing (at a Q&A after a recent performance at Lincoln Center, she revealed that she grew up going to church twice Sunday and several times during the week as well) is evident both in one of the character’s names and in how that character, Moses, goes through a personal transformation.
“Pass Over’s” potency is in the ways in which it forces the audience to think about the ways we ask people of color in general, but Black people in particular, to prove their humanity, something that Nwandu points out is innate and should be evident without any effort.
“They are demonstrating their humanity in every moment all the time in every moment because they are human,” she said.
On the flip side, it also presents the challenge of racist whites (and perhaps anti-Black, non-Black people of color) to forsake hatred and step into their own humanity.
In addition, the way that Nwandu uses language and the actors’ use of movement across the spartan set make for a fascinating, daring bit of must-see theater. Nwandu also brilliantly manages to infuse much of the play, fraught with tension and pathos, with humor. When Moses and Kitch riff with each other, it evokes the innocence and naivete of young men that causes those who have grown to know better to chuckle.
Ultimately, “Pass Over” is optimistic; it is hopeful. It is a declaration that yes, things can turn around. Nwandu said, “I do think that kind of change is possible. I think that if it weren’t possible or at least hopeful that someone can change, then I would have a much harder time hoping for any sort of chance for our society.”