“Pass Over” is more than just a foul-mouthed, funny, beautifully acted and blisteringly pointed play about two Black men stuck on a street corner, menaced by white men. It arrives on Broadway surrounded by significance.
Antoinette Nwandu’s play is the first to open on Broadway after almost 18 months of pandemic-induced lockdown; the audience at the August Wilson Theater made the loudest and most raucous cheer I’ve ever heard in response to a pre-show announcement — not at all muffled by the face masks we were all required to wear.
It is the first on Broadway to address the police killing of African Americans in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It is the first of an unprecedented seven plays written by Black playwrights that are scheduled to debut on Broadway this season.
It is the first play to debut on Broadway years after it was first streamed online; Spike Lee’s 2018 film of the Steppenwolf production is still available on Amazon Prime. Nwandu has rewritten the play extensively for the Broadway production, which is longer, and broader in tone, with a completely altered ending.
All this heavy significance seems to me to pose as much a burden as a boost to “Pass Over.” If, as a result, some will be impressed enough to overlook the play’s flaws, others (who are used to more standard Broadway fare) might be scared away, overlooking its virtues.
The play is clearly intended as an allegory, heavily inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and The Book of Exodus. Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood portray two men, Moses (!) and Kitch, who spend night and day on the curb under a single street lamppost in much the way Beckett’s vaudevillian tramps sit on the barren ground by a single tree. Moses and Kitch pass the time by clowning around, roughhousing, even breaking into song and dance. (It seems terribly apt that Bill Irwin, the noted clown and Beckett aficionado, is listed in the credits as a “movement consultant.”) Moses and Kitch also dream of the Promised Land — listing the ten things they would want to be waiting for them there: a drawer full of clean socks is the third on Moses list, in-between a bright red Superman kite, and his brother back from the dead. They try to recall the people they know who’ve been killed by the police. These poignant lines come amid the unrelenting repetition of profanity – typical samples: “You ol faggot ass nigga” ….“fuck you nigga damn.” Under the direction of Danya Taymor making her Broadway debut, Hill and Smallwood manage to turn this torrent of street talk into a kind of street poetry and often nearly a standup routine.
Every now and then Moses and Kitch are interrupted. Sometimes the interruption is an unseen terror (brought to life by Marcus Doshi’s dramatic lighting and Justin Ellington’s stark sound design.) Most times, it’s by a palpable terror — two white men (both played by Gabriel Ebert). One is a cop. His name (Ossifer) and the way he treats the men, calling them “boys,” beating them, frisking them in a sexualized way, suggests the playwright’s attempt to place his brutality not just in, say, Chicago in 2021, but within the history of American racism, and something more mythic: Ossifer, which is street lingo for “officer,” sounds to me like Lucifer. I should point out that the name Ossifer is listed in the program and in the script, but not uttered on stage; it’s one example of the many allusions and attempts at deeper meaning that are suggested in the script but not as readily evident in performance.
The other white vistor seems more benign. Dressed in an all-white linen suit, and a smile, he is full of chatter about visiting his grandmother, and offers the men picnic basket overflowing with delicacies. He actually says “golly gosh gee.” Then he tells Moses and Kitch that his name is Master.
This is not what you’d call subtle. The play is too obvious in too many places. At 95 minutes without an intermission, “Pass Over” also felt overlong to me. It’s 25 minutes longer than Spike Lee’s film.
But “Pass Over” on Broadway is almost a different play than the filmed version, a better play, thanks largely to its new ending. I suppose the less said about the ending the better. But it’s hopeful, strange, gloriously theatrical (kudos to the designers, especially set designer Wilson Chin) The playwright has said she made the change as a response to what has happened in the country since the last production of the play, at Lincoln Center in 2018. It brought forth memories to me of the climax in Sara Ruhl’s “In The Next Room,” and in Katari Hall’s “The Mountaintop” — stagecraft that transcends the stage, but can only really work to full effect on a stage, in a roomful of people sharing the same air.
August Wilson Theater, through October 10
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu
Directed by Danya Taymor Associate Director: Tramane Harris
Scenic Design by Wilson Chin; Costume Design by Sarafina Bush; Lighting Design by Marcus Doshi; Sound Design by Justin Ellington; Associate Scenic Design: Riw Rakkulchon; Associate Costume Design: DeShon Elem; Associate Lighting Design: Elizabeth Mak; Associate Sound Design: Beth Lake. Movement Consultant: Bill Irwin; Fight direction by J. David Brimmer; Voice and Text Coach: Gigi Buffingto
Gabriel Ebert as Mister/Ossifer
Jon Michael Hill as Moses
Namir Smallwood as Kitch