Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu has cited “Waiting for Godot” as an inspiration.Illustration by Richard A. Chance
“Pass Over,” by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, opens on a stark and uninviting nocturnal tableau. Above a huge metallic street lamp stretch several crisscrossing beams of white light. On the ground, there’s a loose tire, a milk crate, and a big oil drum where, in a different story, a homeless person might draw heat from a fire. The result of this arrangement—which remains essentially untouched throughout the play, until a radical change occurs in the final moments—is a haunted, paranoid feeling.
In some ways, the set—designed by Wilson Chin for this production, at the August Wilson, directed by Danya Taymor—and the play itself are a strange fit for the moment at hand. “Pass Over” is the first play to open on Broadway after nearly seventeen covid-harrowed months. For this notionally celebratory occasion, you might expect a kind of jubilee, some dancing in the aisles, an attempt at escape. Instead, we get this further immersion in our troubles, this barren block and its two main inhabitants—Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood), both Black, both down and out, each happy only when engaging in ribald banter, and otherwise lost and incredibly afraid. With the set, “Pass Over” tells the crowd to get ready for a bummer.
Earlier this summer, when Broadway’s opening-night dates were announced, it was still possible to imagine a gratefully carefree autumn. People would get the shots and shed their masks, and we’d return to shows and return to our lives, out of the woods. Those first few nights back in Times Square—for which I have developed unlikely feelings of nostalgia—would be the beginning of the end of a war. Instead, we got a muddle. Nobody knows when to expect a real reprieve, or whether to relax in the presence of a body in the next seat. Each month, hope threatens to make us look like suckers. The night I saw “Pass Over,” the audience gave long, emotional ovations before the show even started; a voice over the speakers welcomed us back to Broadway and basked in the expected applause. I found the clapping sweet, but also crushingly sad—a premature and somewhat forced catharsis.
Broadway is back, but we—“we” in the broad, communal sense on which all theatre depends—are still puzzling our way through. Moses and Kitch are stuck, too, and that is the play’s engine. They speak in a ritualized, repetitive dialogue, which, by the evidence of their careful verbal choreography, we understand they perform each day:
Kitch: whats good my nigga
Moses: man you know
Kitch: you know i know
Moses: you know i know you know
Moses declares his plans to “git my ass up off dis block” and to set off for a “promised land” of champagne, lobster rolls, and caviar. It’s obvious, though, that this dream has so far been just another part of the patter—nothing on which to stake too much hope or expectation. The chill I started to get upon each utterance of the phrase “up off dis block” is like the one I get when I hear myself forecast a time “after the pandemic.”
The play’s pattern of waiting and circling is its closest resemblance to Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” which Nwandu has cited as inspiration for “Pass Over.” Present, too, is a hint of the placeless existentialism in “Godot.” That strand might be more apparent when reading the script than when watching the show: in Nwandu’s script, the setting is described as
the river’s edge
but also a ghetto street but also a desert city built by slaves (and also the new world to come ((worlds without end))
Yet the “Godot” adjacency goes only so far. “Pass Over” doesn’t really feel timeless or placeless or, despite its many references to the Bible, distant from this-worldly matters. If not for those stage directions, I’d think of the play as taking place in the hyper-present, on a Hell’s Kitchen street not far from the theatre. “Pass Over” strikes me, instead, as a piece of heightened realism, like Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” another showcase for inert pipe-dreaming and masculine shiftlessness delivered at an antic register. Nwandu’s language is spun from vernacular Black English that often resembles verse. There are shades of Suzan-Lori Parks’s high-flung collages of dialogue, as true in sound as in sense.
Kitch and Moses play against each other in a kinetic slapstick, giving even their most tired and least convincing volleys the feeling of inspired improvisation. Smallwood’s Kitch is like a little brother, and acolyte, of Hill’s Moses. It’s Moses’s job, as his name suggests, to lead the pair as they “pass over” into the promised land. It’s Smallwood’s job, through Kitch, to keep the audience uncomfortably laughing. Smallwood moves with dancerly precision, turning physical comedy into a ballet. He falls and gapes and makes his expressive eyes ogle. When Kitch is scared—sometimes, mid-conversation, he and Moses freeze as they recall the police violence that hems them in—we see the terror wash across him. Smallwood—helped along by Taymor, who recently directed Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” and Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy,” and is quickly becoming one of our foremost arrangers of bodies telling secrets in the dark—makes watching live performance a promised land of its own.
To the extent that this sonorous play is a kind of song—of longing, of loss, and of what comes after—its constant refrain is the word “nigga.” By my count, it appears in the script two hundred and sixty-seven times, a feat of obsessive density perhaps matched only by certain episodes of the classic standup-comedy show “Def Comedy Jam.” The audience laughed nervously almost every time the word—as distinguished from “nigger,” which is said only three times, by a white policeman named Ossifer (Gabriel Ebert)—was repeated, as if they’d been stranded at a Martin Lawrence show and were straining not to reveal themselves as uncomfortable. Nwandu’s “niggas” are like Pinter’s pauses—ways to keep time, to hear one phrase ending and another fitfully gearing up.
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Ebert plays two white characters, the only people who intrude on Moses and Kitch’s world. One is an aristocratic eccentric named Mister, who comes bearing a picnic basket whose contents Kitch can’t resist. Mister claims to have ended up on the block after getting lost, but his presence grows stranger by the moment. Ossifer, the cop, is a stock baddie, tossing N-bombs and waiting for opportunities for violence. A confrontation gone wrong between him and Moses and Kitch precipitates the apocalyptic ending of “Pass Over,” which troubles the meaning of the play’s title, stretching it past its overt allusion to Exodus and into the hinterlands between life and death.
The piece is a strange causal chain, an uneasy meditation on action. It sometimes feels offensive, and sometimes confoundingly silly: two Black guys stand around dreaming and hoping and stalling and kidding, until some white men come to stir things up and cause a cataclysm. The weak wait for the strong—their motion is all response, no initiation. Jesus is on the mainline, as the old church song goes—these guys would know it well—but nobody knows what to order when they get him on the phone. Everything’s in flux but also makes for light fare. Whatever’s been wrong, it’s all still happening. ♦