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Pass Over

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 18, 2018

Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

As the American public-at-large begins (hopefully) at long last to understand the embedded and pervasive racism that is a part of the warp and woof of the fabric of our history, past and present, plays like Antoinette Nwandu's Pass Over at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater are increasingly important educational tools and calls for action.

For some reason that is not particularly helpful, the play, which had a previous production last year at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, is being touted as a contemporary riff on Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot. To cite the comparison might make it easier to advertise, but for whatever similarities that exist, the play is anchored not in Theater of the Absurd, but in the sadder and more sobering absurdity of reality.

The "Godot"-ishness of the play comes out by placing its lead characters, two young black men named Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood), on a small expanse of urban sidewalk, where they are more-or-less trapped in a plain that lies somewhere between hope and despair, contemplating an escape into a better world or, contrarily, into heaven. They pass the days by alternately razzing and supporting one another. The teasing is often funny, but the play carries a serious message about the undercurrent of fear that fills their lives, especially as, periodically, the lights flicker and both stop immediately and raise their hands in the air in anticipation of being approached by armed "po-pos" (police). An actual appearance by a policeman (Gebriel Ebert, who also plays a Rodgers and Hammerstein-loving character named Mister (aka "Master"), does nothing to alleviate their preconception.

The cast of the one-act play (running just under 90 minutes), under Danya Taymor's direction, is uniformly strong. Playwright Antoinette Nwandu is an important new voice who has done an especially fine job of capturing the language of the urban streets and making it quite poetic. More importantly, in Moses and Kitch, she has created truly sympathetic characters who are trapped in what Moses explains is a "mega-four" for life. And despite the lighthearted moments and some flights of fantasy, never doubt that the message here is deadly serious, not when Moses asks, "how many niggas we know been kilt?" and Kitch is able to rattle off more than a dozen names without giving it much thought.

If there is one take-away for us to remember, it is that we should not blithely dismiss those who are relegated to second class status as "stupid, lazy, violent thugs," to quote Moses. Such a "mean streets" label is an all-too-convenient way to justify hiding behind locked doors and allowing the authorities or self-appointed vigilantes to violently assault or kill minorities in the name of maintaining order.

Pass Over
Through July 15
Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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