Finding redemption and rebirth on the road to Broadway

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Finding redemption and rebirth on the road to Broadway
From left: Namir Smallwood, Jon Michael Hill and Gabriel Ebert in the play “Pass Over,” at the August Wilson Theater in New York, Aug. 17, 2021. The “Pass Over” playwright’s bold decision to alter her play’s ending was essential, she said, to convey the message that “we as a people need to heal.” Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Salamishah Tillet

NEW YORK, NY.- “Your play makes ‘Waiting for Godot’ seem light,” I said, hesitantly, to playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, whose “Pass Over” was the first play to open on Broadway in more than a year.

Without a second of doubt, Nwandu replied, “‘Godot’ is light.”

So began our tête-à-tête, a lively exchange about our first encounters with that existential work by Beckett, Nwandu’s influence for her “Godot”-inspired play and her decision to change the play’s ending as it headed to Broadway.

One of the challenges for me with “Godot” has always been its ambiguity. It can be a play about everything, including but not limited to death, religion or friendship. At best, it is potent political satire. But when viewed in our current political climate and the urgency of racism, sexism and climate change, its lack of clarity can also feel like a luxury. It’s a play, Irish critic Vivian Mercier famously noted, in which “nothing happens, twice.”

As much as Nwandu’s “Pass Over” riffs on Beckett’s four-character structure, rapid-fire dialogue and circular logic, she also pulls from the Book of Exodus, and substantially raises the stakes and makes racism the explicit existential crisis that the characters, Black and white, must outlast or overcome.

While watching “Pass Over” at the August Wilson Theater, I realized the main conversation Nwandu was having was not with Beckett but with another formidable playwright: herself.

Nwandu originally wrote “Pass Over” in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, seeking to channel the grief and rage that so many African Americans were grappling with. Its latest iteration, she has said, is speaking to the widespread racial justice protests of the summer of 2020. As a result, “Pass Over” is one of the few works of art that really charts Black Lives Matter as a movement responding to the racial justice needs of its day.

In the play, two Black men in their late teens/early 20s, Moses and Kitch, are seemingly stuck on a street corner. They engage in a lively exchange that recalls their existence before they got stuck on the block and reveals their anxieties and desires to leave and find their freedom in the Promised Land.

The conversations are routinely interrupted by a white male character named Mister/Master and a white police officer who repeatedly harasses them. In early productions at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2017 and Lincoln Center in 2018, one of the Black men is murdered by the Mister/Master character. The other is left to grieve his best friend, and, alongside the audience, carry the weight of the killing. (Spike Lee filmed a remount of the play, which he later released on Amazon Prime in 2018.)

“That was chemotherapy for the white community,” Nwandu admitted about that ending. “I was writing to white people specifically” to wake them up to the increasing regularity and tragic reality of white police officers and everyday citizens killing African American men and women.

The play was intentionally anti-cathartic. But on Broadway, Nwandu wanted to heal by reveling in the aesthetic of what scholar Kevin Quashie in his latest book calls “Black aliveness.”

At first, Nwandu’s new ending is as tragic as the original. The two men make a pact to kill each other rather than be struck down by the white police officer. But then she adopts biblical themes. After Kitch appears to have successfully (and tragically) taken his friend’s life, their plan is interrupted by Moses’ resurrection, and then by Moses’ ability to control the officer’s actions. Meanwhile, the curb — the constant setting of the play — suddenly disappears, with the lamp post quickly replaced by a group of trees. Moses and Kitch’s sense of purgatory is now more akin to paradise.

After what Nwandu describes in the script as “the wrath of God” manifests as plagues upon the officer, he is seemingly absolved of his misdeeds and given a name, Christopher. He disrobes and enters the garden. Moses, now also nude, follows him. Kitch is left behind, contemplating his future, while seemingly being seduced by his past.

This scene was jarring for me. Not just because I’d seen earlier versions of the show, but because for most of its 95-minute intermissionless run, I felt on edge, constantly wondering which threat would ruin their Black lives. And that, of course, is the point. But, in this ending, Nwandu wanted to move us past our fear and agony.

“Now, this show is about me trying to say, ‘Look, we as people have to heal,’” she said. “Really, really, really, at least believe, that healing is somehow possible.”

Though I found its new conclusion a bit muddled, I also left deeply admiring Nwandu’s experiment. She not only chose to free herself from the never-ending loop of Beckett’s play, but she also liberated her actors and audience from having to watch onstage, what many of us repeatedly witnessed on a video in real life last year: the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer on a Minneapolis street.

Such hyper-emphasis on police brutality, while often necessary, also risks reinforcing a stereotype that Blackness is always intertwined with grief, violence and loss.

“What would it mean to consider Black aliveness, especially given how readily — and literally blackness is indexed to death?” Quashie writes in his book. “To behold such aliveness, we’d have to imagine a Black world.”

And what a new world Nwandu’s Black Eden gives us. She not only altered her ending, but also modeled how we, as a society, might begin again. To do so, her satire has become surreal, the racist killings of the first version become interracial rebirths, and our hopes for Kitch and Moses turn into a sense of relief, and a little redemption.

Most remarkably, passing over becomes a radical act of reclamation and transformation. “I need Flint to be a promised land. I need Katrina to be a promised land,” she told me.

Adding, that the promised land is “any place where Black life can flourish.”

Ultimately, I saw her work as an offering, and an opening for all of us to make the Black people’s ongoing dreams of freedom, a reality.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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