‘Pass Over’ Broadway review - no one is 'off the hook' in this challenging yet optimistic play

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    Date:
    August 23, 2021
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    I have seen Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over three times: once on Amazon Prime, where it was directed by Spike Lee; once off Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater; and the final time in its current version on Broadway. And every time I’ve seen it, the play has had a different ending, to reflect the current moment. But while the world has changed since when the play premiered in 2017 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, it has also stayed maddeningly the same. As one character, Moses, puts it: “Same shit. Jess da day dat’s changed.”

    Pass Over is inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but instead of tramps in bowler hats waiting for a man who never arrives, it’s two young Black men (Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill) in black baseball caps trying to get off of the dilapidated concrete block. They want  to enter “the Promised Land,” where they will finally have warm food, clean socks, and an existence without fear.

    Yet despite how hard they try, Moses and Kitch can’t seem to leave that block. 

    Why? It’s an invisible force that traps them there, freezes their limbs, and pulls them back. Call it white supremacy. Call it institutionalized racism. Call it police brutality. Smartly, the play never mentions any of those words, but it doesn’t need to. Pass Over allows the audience to fill in the blanks, just like how Waiting for Godot never mentioned the words “existential dread.”  

    Pass Over has three actors in its cast, who reprise their roles from off Broadway: Smallwood, Hill, and Gabriel Ebert. Smallwood and Hill bring a lived-in quality to the relationship between Moses and Kitch. We don’t know how the two men got on that block, but Smallwood and Hill have a natural chemistry, adding depth to the characters and their relationship, and giving a sense that they have seen many days together. 

    Director Danya Taymor directs with a deft touch; she smartly balances the broad absurdist elements of the play, the parts where the characters go wide and broad, while also giving room for Smallwood and Hill to have moments of quiet and tenderness. They may be in a parable, but Moses and Kitch are also human.

    The third actor in Pass Over, Ebert, plays two different roles: as the congenial Mister and as a police officer. While Ebert successfully conveys the cruelty of law enforcement, his performance as Mister is more frightening. Mister seems kind and benign on the surface but there’s a threatening edge to him — Ebert expertly conveys the duality of this Karen-like figure. 

    That’s not to say that Pass Over is a bleak work. There are moments of levity throughout, particularly when Moses and Kitch riff with each other. An early exchange of just the phrase “I know you know” repeated a dozen times, with different intonations, had the audience guffawing — it’s Beckettian nonsense mixed with contemporary musicality. 

    When I interviewed playwright Antoinette Nwandu about Pass Over, she said that she has changed the ending of the play three times, the biggest change being in this new Broadway version. Not to give any spoilers away, but to me, this new version is the strongest. 

    In all three versions, Pass Over takes on challenging themes — police brutality, systemic racism, and liberal hypocrisy — but does it in a way that is stylistically original, and does not feel overstuffed or didactic. It may be maddening from an audience perspective to have the characters be trapped in one place for 90 minutes, but racism is maddening. 

    What makes this version of Pass Over so successful is its awareness of the audience watching it. The play is now being presented to a Broadway audience who likely have the phrases “diversity,” “white privilege,” and “inclusion” in their regular vocabulary (though audiences who aren’t as socially aware might find the previous versions of Pass Over more illuminating). 

    When presenting works about systemic racism to an audience that is mostly liberal, there’s always the risk that the audience will believe that because they are one of the “good” ones, they have no stake in the fight. Pass Over does not let any of us off the hook; we are all standing on that concrete block, these issues affect all of us.

    The previous versions of Pass Over shocked the audience. This version of the play implicates the audience. At the same time, it leaves us with a possible pathway forward. This Pass Over is a more optimistic work, saying that these big issues are solvable. We, not just the characters but the collective we, just need the will to do it. The Promised Land is within our grasp, if we choose to take that first step. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to follow the devil back into the concrete.

    Pass Over is running at the August Wilson Theatre through October 10. Get Pass Over Broadway tickets on New York Theatre Guide.