theater (reviews)

In the Theater of Nwandu, Black Men Yearn to ‘Pass Over’

[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, June 19, 2018.]

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Namir Smallwood (in red) and John Michael Hill (in cap) in “Pass Over.” Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, currently at Lincoln Center Theater, invites comparison with other plays but, in the end, stands on its own. “Waiting for Godot Meets Black Lives Matter,” mused Chris Jones in his Chicago Tribune review of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s 2017 world premiere — and the text and plot does hint at Samuel Beckett’s Godot, as well as the call-and-response conventions of vaudeville and sketch comedy. This is a world of humor but also danger in which two poor Black men, surrounded by violence, scheme ways to “pass over” — and out of their limited circumstances. In 85 minutes deftly directed by Danya Taymor, we’re led to laughter, tears and healthy self-reflection.

The two young Black men — Moses (facile, gentle, heartbreaking Jon Michael Hill), with a yen to escape his circumstances; and Kitch (loyal, funny Namir Smallwood), who wants to stay with his buddy — hang out on the streets of an unnamed American city. They may have a permanent address somewhere, but we don’t see it. We watch them on the street — living, talking, fighting, laughing, surviving, listing their dreams, and occasionally stopping in their tracks to hold their hands up, silently. (The Chicago reviews indicated that at Steppenwolf, these moments involved the sound of whizzing bullets and the men ducking for cover. Here, somber silence perhaps has more power.)

During house music before the action begins, we become acutely aware that the wait for these men is real and endless. Moses and Kitch are on stage, one dozing and one alert, watching the audience enter and waiting for something we’ve yet to discover. As we wait, we are forced into a choice: Will we nap through this scene or watch warily as the characters watch the corners of their world? The story begins with wary movements but no dialogue as the sound design, by Justin Ellington, lulls us with cultural references: the title tune from the film Singin’ in the Rain; “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma!; and the limpid “Que Será, Será,” introduced by Doris Day in the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Around the edges of this action, insinuating its way into the lives of these characters in ways subtle and bold, is the persistent question for Moses and Kitch of who they can trust and who they must avoid. It’s a plot in which nothing happens, and everything happens. They banter; they roughhouse. Choreographed freeze-frame moments of their hands up in dimmed lights illustrate that these two Black man can be stopped in their tracks at the whim of others at any moment. The dominant white culture holds the power, here in the form of actor Gabriel Ebert as Mister, a plummy-accented, suited society man bearing gifts of food and weapons of words, and Ossifer, a beat cop who returns often to check in on, and be challenged by, the men. (Ebert demonstrates a marvelous singing voice to delightful and chilling effect.)

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