Language plays a significant role in “Pass Over,” the play by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, whether through repetition, ambiguity or cultural references. It begins with the title referring to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Most of the action occurs in both the present and future in an inner city ghetto. But there are also scenes on a slave plantation in 1855 as well as Biblical times.
Two young Black men, Moses and Kitch, are hanging out on the street corner. Through their banter, the audience quickly realizes that they have had this same conversation before. The men’s goal is to reach the Promised Land, and they share their top ten wishlists.
But first, they must get off their block and that doesn't seem promising. They are constrained by the power by the mostly off-stage presence of the police signaled by abrupt dramatic lighting ( Lighting design by Marcus Doshi.)
Like Waiting for Godot, which this play evokes,the two spend their time waiting. They yearn for an escape to a place replete with food and luxuries. The pressure is on Moses, like his Biblical namesake, to lead them. Kitsch (well-played by Naimir Smallwood) is a gentle, forgiving, almost childlike figure, who is willing to follow Moses anywhere. (I envisioned Lennie in Of Mice and Men and his dependence on George.)
Burdened by the responsibility, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) is tightly wound and angry. He is cynical, especially when a white man (Gabriel Ebert) mistakenly wanders into their neighborhood. When Mister (or as he slips and says Master) asks to sit down, Kitsch is fine with it but Moses is suspicious. When the white man offers food from his bounteous basket, Kitsch is eager to take it. Although he’s starving, Moses is reluctant. The white man is not to be trusted and it doesn’t feel unsurprising when the white policeman (called Ossifer In the Playbill) does finally appear, and is actually played by the same actor.
The performances are excellent and the actors are agile and lithe. Ebert is a disarming presence, Despite his “gosh, golly gee” comments which reek of TV’s Gomer Pyle, there's something disturbing about him. We feed off Moses' distrust and wait for something sinister to occur.
With the backdrop of BLM movement and the well-publicized deaths of Blacks at the hands of the police, “Pass Over” is relentless and makes its point quite clearly.. all the while engaging the emotions of the audience. At one point Kitch begins naming all the people he knows who have been killed by the police and his list seems endless.
Yet despite the heaviness of the subject and despair of the characters, there’s much humor, mostly because of the loving playful relationship between the two men as well as the physicality of the characters. There’s even music- Mister pulls a banjo from his bottomless picnic basket and the three sing “It’s A Wonderful World.” Is that song meant to be hopeful or ironic? Yet I sat through the play with a feeling of dread and fearing the play could not end well.
At first, “Pass Over “ means to get off the streets and to have a good meal and a comfortable place to sleep. (Kitch wants Air Jordans and caviar.) Later it signifies the freedom of the slaves from Israel but by the end, the two make a suicide pact to “Pass Over” into paradise.
Deftly directed by Danya Taymor, the play which has gone through various iterations and was filmed by Spike Lee in 2018, has a new ending for the August Wilson Theater run. I will not reveal here, in part because of the tension leading up to the overall experience, and, quite honestly, I’m still interpreting it for myself.
Despite the weightiness of the subject, the play allows the audience to feel hopeful The drama, running 95 minutes with no intermission, is overlong but those in the audience, thrilled by their return to live Broadway theater, had few complaints.
First Broadway show to open after COVID shutdown