Review: 'Pass Over' comes to Broadway, in horror and hope

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Review: 'Pass Over' comes to Broadway, in horror and hope
From left, Namir Smallwood as Kitch, Jon Michael Hill as Moses, and Gabriel Ebert as Ossifer in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” at the August Wilson Theatre in New York, Aug. 2, 2021. Nwandu’s play about young Black men in peril inaugurates the new season with unexpected joy. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On Wednesday night, when a preshow announcement informed the 1,200 or so people at the August Wilson Theater that they were “one of the first audiences back to see a real Broadway play,” the response was the kind of roar you’d expect for a beloved diva returning from rehab. And “Pass Over,” by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, does not disappoint in that regard. Having survived pandemic jitters (so far) and its own circuitous path to get there, it emerged like a star: in top shape, at full throttle and refreshed by some artful doctoring.

If it seems strange to talk about a tragedy in such terms, keep in mind that though “Pass Over” is forthrightly centered on the plight of two young Black men in an urban police state, its ambition is so far-reaching that it embraces (and in Danya Taymor’s thriller of a production, succeeds as) comedy, melodrama and even vaudeville. In that, it emulates the vision and variety of its most direct sources: “Waiting for Godot,” the Samuel Beckett play about tramps biding their time in eternity, and the Book of Exodus, about an enslaved people seeking the Promised Land.

In “Pass Over,” the tramps and the enslaved are combined in the characters of Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood). They are men of our current time who live on the streets of a city not unlike Chicago, yet also on a pre-Emancipation plantation and in Egypt more than three millenniums ago.

The history of slavery everywhere is a heavy symbolic weight for individual characters to carry, but the suffering of men like Moses and Kitch in a racist society right now is not out of proportion to that of their forebears. When they try to make a list of everyone they know who has “been kilt” by the police, it takes a very long time to name them while also distinguishing their particulars. Among many others there are Ed with the dreadlocks (not light-skinned Ed), “dat tall dude got dat elbow rash,” Kev and “dat otha” Kev, Mike with “dat messed up knee.”

They expect at any moment to be next.

Yet as Moses and Kitch move through a day’s attempts at diversion from this horror, including their oft-rehearsed roughhousing routines and games of “Promised Land Top 10” — Kitch wants a pair of new (but “not thrift store new”) Air Jordans — Nwandu forces us to look beyond their struggle to their full humanity. Despite their encounters with a clueless white gentleman called Mister and an enraged police officer called Ossifer (both played by Gabriel Ebert) they remain witty and warmhearted, belligerent only to cover their need for each other, and filled with big dreams accompanied by the almost unbearable burden of hope.

Their biggest dream is to “pass over” — an equivocal phrase that shifts its meaning as the 95-minute play moves through various theatrical genres. (There’s no intermission; in an introduction to the script, Nwandu writes that if Moses and Kitch can’t leave, “neither can you.”)

At first, “pass over” means simply to get off the streets: to achieve, if not the fine foods and soft sheets on their Top 10 lists, then at least a decent meal and a bed that is not made of sidewalk. Later the phrase takes on larger meaning as their plight evokes and even merges with that of Black people escaping slavery and the biblical Israelites recalled on Passover. Yet later it becomes part of a suicide pact by which they hope to end their suffering together, and “pass over” into paradise.

Many of these moments may be familiar to you if you know “Waiting for Godot,” in which Beckett’s tramps similarly rehearse old routines, contemplate hanging themselves from a spindly tree, deal with mystifying visitors and share their moldy turnips. (In “Pass Over,” the tree becomes a lamppost; the turnips, a pizza crust.) Yet even in earlier versions of the play — originally produced by Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago in 2017, then filmed by Spike Lee and revised for Lincoln Center Theater in 2018 — Nwandu never bound herself to her templates, leaving Beckett’s absurdism behind as the needs of her particular story required. Those needs took her to strange places.

In rewriting for Broadway, she has gone even further. Not only has she decided to push the play past tragedy into something else, but she has also, in its last 10 minutes, let its innate surrealism fully flower in a daring and self-consciously theatrical way. (The transformation is gorgeously rendered in Wilson Chin’s scenic design, Marcus Doshi’s lighting, Justin Ellington’s sound and even, in their removal, Sarafina Bush’s costumes.) Somehow Nwandu gives us the recognition of horror that has informed drama since the Greeks while also providing the relief of joy — however irrational — that calls to mind the ecstasies of gospel, splatter flicks and classic musicals, all of which are sampled.

Taymor’s production could hardly support that vision better. Though I was at first troubled by how strongly she stresses the comedy — given the almost ritualized clowning, it was no surprise to see Bill Irwin credited as a movement consultant — it soon became clear that allowing the humor full rein allows the same to terror. In pushing both extremes further forward, often letting them spill into the theater with winks and shocks, Taymor asks the audience to accept its role in the story and perhaps also its complicity.

She has also shaped the performances, which were already excellent three years ago, into something that seems to go deeper than acting. Like Laurel and Hardy, who were surely among Beckett’s models for his tramps, Hill and Smallwood have a kind of anti-chemistry that draws them closer the more they squabble.

Hill, as befits a character named Moses, has the heavier burden of a vision to carry out; you can see his body resist the weight and then wonderfully, if only temporarily, lift it. Smallwood, as Kitch, the epitome of a pesky younger brother, knows just how to get under Moses’ skin because that’s where he needs to be for safety. For both of them, “You feel me?” is almost a password.

Of course, when Mister hears it, he fails to understand. “I’d rather not,” he says.

As Mister, Ebert manages the virtuoso trick of making obtuseness both weird and charming, at least for a while. But watch him try to sit down at one point, his lanky body becoming an expression of hypocrisy as he snakes one way then slumps the other. Later, when Ebert returns as Ossifer, hard and unbending, you barely know him, and certainly don’t want to.

Ossifer is not a caricature so much as a compendium of sadistic police officer tropes. Yet Nwandu’s larger view makes the choice to write him that way more than an expedience. Without ever forgetting its origin in American racism, “Pass Over” broadens to include every kind of -ism, including the ultimately unanswerable one of existentialism. She is asking not only why Black men must live in fear of having their bodily integrity stolen but also why all humans must, in any age and place.

And if she waffles a bit near the end, never quite landing the final leap across the river, she lets us bathe in the hope of it anyway. After all, as the roar at the start of the show announced, we have already begun to pass over some things; the existence of “Pass Over” on Broadway is proof of that. Do we dare to hope that as a new season begins, new promised lands are possible, too?

Additional Information:

'Pass Over'

Through Oct. 10 at the August Wilson Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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