Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 22, 2021
Pass Over. By Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu. Directed by Danya Taymor. Scenic design by Wilson Chin. Costume design by Sarafina Bush. Lighting design by Marcus Doshi. Sound design by Justin Ellington. Fight Direction by J. David Brimmer. Voice and text coach Gigi Buffington.
Cast: Cast: Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood, and Gabriel Ebert.
The reason this night is different is that the Red Sea of COVID-19 has parted enough to allow Broadway to reopen for business, and Pass Over has pride of place for being the first play to reach the other side. As the lights dimmed pre-show, the masked and vaccinated audience paid tribute to the momentous occasion with a prolonged round of wildly enthusiastic applause. But well-earned cheers aside, you need to know that celebration is not a significant theme of Pass Over, a timely and stinging examination of racism in a version of America where realism and symbolism intermingle, even if they do not fully homogenize.
Borrowing imagery from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the play places its own version of Didi and Gogo into a small stretch of urban space from which there is only the dream of escape to provide hope. Here, the characters are two young Black men, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood). Fortunately for them, they are the best of friends, because it does appear they will have to rely on one another indefinitely. The "promised land" where they can reach their "full potential," as Moses puts it, is seemingly unobtainable.
When Moses and Kitch are the only ones on stage, Pass Over presents us with their sustaining rituals of often-funny banter and horseplay, while periodically puncturing the moment with sudden outbursts of painful revelations. When Moses envisions the promised land, for instance, he describes it as a place where "a plate of collard greens and pinto beans" and a "drawer full uh clean socks" await him. Then, bam, almost as a "by the way," he adds to the list, "my brother here wid me back from da dead."
Death, that path to another kind of promised land, lurks constantly in the periphery of their lives. Moses's brother is not the only dead Black man the two know of; without giving it much thought, Kitch is able to rattle off a list of some two dozen from their neighborhood who have been victims of violence. One of their ritual greetings is "yo kill me now," to which the other automatically replies "bang bang." And then, there is the always feared visit by the white "po-po," the police, who are able to cross with ease into the space from which Moses and Kitch are unable to escape. For a time, they are also joined by another white man, a quirky wanderer who goes by the name of Mister, or sometimes Master, and who is both a harmless oddball and another harmful threat.
Pass Over comes to Broadway following its pre-pandemic Lucille Lortel Award-winning run at Lincoln Center's compact 131-seat Claire Tow Theater. Its greatest strength lies in the performances by the trio of actors who made the move with that production: Jon Michael Hill as Moses, Namir Smallwood as Kitch, and Gabriel Ebert in the roles of Mister/Master and a sadistic police officer named Ossifer. Together, they have polished their interactions to a high gloss, and there is not a line or a gesture that is wasted in their performances. Visually, as well, nothing has been lost in the transfer to the much larger space. Wilson Chin's set design, an urban version of the landscape from Waiting for Godot, sits well on the stage of the August Wilson Theatre.
Both the playwright and director Danya Taymor have had the challenging task of keeping the humor and the ominous dread in equilibrium, and they have been mostly successful in doing so. But there are times when the 95-minute play lingers too long on one side or the other of the equation, or even meanders from its path altogether. The script has undergone changes since the Lincoln Center production, picking up 10 minutes and a revision to the ending that has switched from what was an arguably inevitable conclusion to something rather more fanciful and jarring, as if it had been grafted on instead of emerging organically from all that came before. Waiting for Godot ends with a measure of hope for a better tomorrow in the face of uncertainty, and perhaps, in these uncertain times, that might have been the way to go with Pass Over.