“Pass Over” hits a couple of milestones: Not only is it the first Broadway production to be staged since the pandemic’s shutdown, it is one of seven plays created by Black writers to be staged this season.
Black female playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Broadway debut will set her in the annals of theater history. This scorching, visceral drama demonstrates her empathy for the plight of Black men in the United States of America. Nwandu has a sense of their feeling targeted by the police, and their sense of hopelessness and redundancy in their everyday lives. This feeling of being powerless and being made to feel inadequate for just being who you are––a human being with the basic needs of shelter, food, feeling safe and seen––and what happens to Black men when those basic needs are taken away. Nwandu bravely and thoroughly covers the issue of the brotherhood that Black men feel for one another and how they will continuously use the “N” word in everyday speech, but use it with a meaning of affection, dedication and friendship. She also recognizes the constant state of fear and trauma that Black men, who have known friends and family killed by the police, experience on a daily basis.
Nwandu gives the audience a captivating story of true friendship and two men in pain, the pain of personal family loss caused by police brutality; the pain of feeling trapped and unable to simply leave a ghetto street corner, instead feeling that there is no recourse but to stay and endure racist police harassment. Their crime is being Black and alive, and that is not something they can or want to change––nor should they have to. Nwandu stunningly gives us two men, Moses and Kitch, who live on a ghetto street corner and every day talk trash about what they would want to happen in their lives. They dream of a Promised Land, but also concede that it is not meant for Black men.
Setting the scene in the future and the past, as far back as 1440, Nwandu allows her two characters to talk about all the cruelties that Black people have suffered, like being slaves on the plantation to living and dying in ghettos, murdered by police on a regular basis. Murders that happen so often, to so many of their friends and family, that they recall each person’s name and feel the sadness of each murder. Moses’ character refers to Moses in the Bible who led the Jews out of Egypt, but this modern-day Moses realizes very acutely that he does not have the ability to lead anyone anywhere; he can’t even help himself. Moses and Kitch exemplify the indomitable spirit of the Black man. Although their lives are repetitive and depressing, they still try to dream. They still try to hope and share the things they would want in the Promised Land. They also find a way to share humorous exchanges, despite the desperation of their situation. There is a lot of profanity exchanged, but it’s real talk.
As they talk of their deeply rooted feelings of despair and degradation, especially at the hands of white police officers, it is not surprising that when a white man comes on their corner they are leery. This man, who called himself Master, at appears to be lost and is carrying a basket of food for his ill mother (a wolf in sheep’s clothing). He comes across as not meaning to cause any problems and the conversations between the three are very funny. Moses does not trust him at all. Kitch is hungry and when Master offers them his food, Kitch agrees and amusingly sits down to eat. (Nwandu skillfully mixes a great deal of humor throughout this script.) You see the stereotypical white guy talking properly and the Black men speaking in slang and using the “N” word. Eventually Moses lets his guard drop as well, to an extent. Master questions Kitch about his repeated use of the “N” word and asks why he uses it. Moses tells him, “It belongs to us.” At that moment Master gives a response that shocked the audience.
When this stranger leaves, Moses and Kitch try to figure out how they can survive and consider speaking proper English, like the white guy. Suddenly a very racist white police officer, labelled Ossifer, comes and proceeds to do what they have been dreading: he degrades them, invasively frisks them and makes them say that they are stupid, lazy and thugs. Moments like this in this production touched the audience so deeply. You could feel the rage seething inside. If you didn’t understand these men’s fears before, you saw it firsthand at that moment. Whether you were willing to accept or not was up to each person.
Nwandu’s characters are so vivid to watch, and the cast of this production was absolutely superb! Jon Michael Hill as Moses and Namir Smallwood as Kitch are riveting to watch. They embody the characters with such clarity, passion, distinction and empathy that you are drawn to them. They allow you to feel every emotion that these two men experience! Excellently done. BRAVO. Hill also originated the role of Moses at the Steppenwolf Theatre and Lincoln Center, prior to coming to Broadway. Smallwood does very well as the comic relief and has a marvelous versatility in his performance. Gabriel Ebert is incredible in his dual roles as Master and Ossifer. He truly gets one’s blood boiling as his evil character Ossifer (did someone say Lucifer?), who treats these two protagonists so cruelly.
This production marks an incredibly impressive directorial debut for Danya Taymor. The way she skillfully handles Nwandu’s dynamic script and orchestrates the actors’ performances is phenomenal. “Pass Over” is 85 minutes of your life, that you will remember for a lifetime. It is playing at the August Wilson Theatre on West 52nd Street. For tickets go to www.passoverbroadway.com. “Pass Over” is produced by Nwandu, Blair Underwood, Matt Ross, Jujamcyn Theaters, Lincoln Center Theater, Concord Theatricals, Renee Montgomery, Madeleine Foster Bersin, Imagine Equal Entertainment, and Austin & Maral Moldow.
For more info, visit www.passoverbroadway.com.