A milestone for Broadway as 'Pass Over' begins performances

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A milestone for Broadway as 'Pass Over' begins performances
From left: Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood and Gabriel Ebert make a curtain call after the first performance of “Pass Over,” at the August Wilson Theatre in Manhattan, Aug. 4, 2021. An audience of 1,055, all showing proof of vaccination, attended the first play staged on Broadway since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered theaters in March 2020. Jeenah Moon/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Anne Grossman and Jennifer Rockwood hustled into Broadway’s August Wilson Theater shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday and, beneath their face masks, smiled.

They had shown their proof of vaccination, passed through metal detectors, and, as they stepped down into the lobby, marveled at being back inside a theater. “It’s thrilling,” Grossman said, “and a little unsettling.”

The two women, both 58-year-old New Yorkers, were among 1,055 people who braved concerns about the highly contagious delta variant in order to, once again, see a play on Broadway. It was the first performance of “Pass Over,” by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, which is the first play staged on Broadway since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered theaters in March of 2020.

“I wanted to be part of the restart of live theater.” Rockwood said.

The play, both comedic and challenging, is about two Black men trapped under a streetlight, afraid that if they dare to leave their corner, they could be killed by a police officer.

The crowd, vaccinated and masked but not socially distanced, was rapturous, greeting Nwandu’s arrival with a standing ovation, and another when she and the play’s director, Danya Taymor, walked onstage after the play to hug the three actors.

The night was significant, not only as Broadway seeks to rebound from a shutdown of historic length, but also as it seeks to respond to renewed concerns about racial equity that have been raised over the past year. “Pass Over” is one of seven plays by Black writers slated to be staged on Broadway this season, and, like many of them, it grapples directly with issues of race and racism.

Patrons expressed a mix of emotions. “I am a little nervous about being in a theater setting, because I haven’t been in that type of setting since the pandemic began, but a lot of precautions were taken, and that gives some comfort level,” said LaTasha Owens, 45, of New York. “But this is timely, and of interest, so I’m looking forward to being back.”

After the play concluded, hundreds of people gathered for a block party on West 52nd Street, in front of the theater, chatting and dancing as a DJ played music and exhorted “If you had a good time, I need to hear everybody say ‘Pass Over’ right now!”

Nwandu addressed the crowd from a balcony above the theater marquee, saying she felt like “Black Evita!” “Do you know how crazy it is to write a play about a plague and then live through a plague?” she asked. Later, she added, “Thank you all so much for being vaccinated, and thank you for celebrating Black joy.”

The play is not the first show on Broadway since the pandemic erupted: “Springsteen on Broadway,” a reprise run of a Bruce Springsteen concert show, began performances June 26, and there have been a few special events and filmed performances in theaters since the shutdown. But the return of traditional theater is a milestone for the industry; the start of “Pass Over” will be followed Sept. 2, if all goes as planned, by the resumption of two musicals, “Hadestown” and “Waitress,” and then Sept. 14 five shows are slated to begin performances, including the tent pole musicals “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked.”

“Pass Over” was previously staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2017, and that production was filmed by Spike Lee and is streaming on Amazon. The play then had an off-Broadway production at Lincoln Center Theater in 2018. Nwandu has substantially revised the ending for Broadway.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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