Namir Smallwood & Gabriel Ebert in Pass Over

Review of Pass Over at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater

Tulis McCall
Tulis McCall

I just learned that there is more than one kind of organ donor. While watching Pass Over my heart was removed from its home and messed with. I did not realize this, of course, until the end of the show because my heart was returned. I know that because it was breaking. Boom.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

Antoinette Nwandu is a fearless writer who takes no prisoners. She writes with a laser beam. In she goes, before you have a chance to avoid her aim out of fear, or politeness, or any damn thing. You sit your ass down and fasten your seatbelt. You pays your money and you takes your chances. This, to my mind, is exactly as it should be. Theatre, any art, is not there to tell us what we already know we know. It is there to remind us what we forgot. It is there to make our skin new and our hearts go ka-boom. Not necessarily with a bang or a brass band or a whoop-dee-doo. Art that has to bonk me over the head has little appeal for me. I like the kind that sits next to me on the curb and notices not only the parade but what treasure may to be found in the gutter.

Nwandu is all over that. As a matter of fact, the curb is exactly where we discover our two friends Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood). The Time is "Now. Right now. But also 1855. But also 13th century BCE." The Place is "A ghetto street. A Lamppost. Night. But also a plantation. But also Egypt, a city built by slaves." This is Neverland. Not the good kind.

This is a land where "Never" is the operative word. And every morning Moses and Kitch choose a path that walks past Never. Only to find themselves in the same boat the next day. This is Waiting For Godot-ghetto style where we, the observers, hope that Godot never shows up. He does, of course. In black and white. A white man in a spiffy light brown/gold seersucker suit, with the pants tailored just short enough to make his argyle socks and spectator shoes stand out. This is Mister (Gabriel Ebert) whose very existence puts a crack in the veneer of this piece of ghetto. His speech is so constrained it feels like he is delivering each word in a tiny box all its own. He is germ free on the outside. Sterile. Dangerous. This man can wear his baseball cap forward or backward.

Ebert next appears as Ossifer - what Moses and Kitch call the "po-po" - the police. Dressed in black, he is the antithesis of Mister. Or perhaps he is Mister turned inside out. He is raw and looking for a reason to be a bastard within the letter of the law. Dangerous. Scared.

Neither white man is trustworthy. As a matter of fact, most everything is untrustworthy for Moses and Kitch. They have each other. Period. They have their mantras of the Top Ten elements of their Promised Land that change with the wind but are as constant as the sun. They have a shared notion that it is possible to Pass Over the troubles they know. A deep notion. They have a running rumble of words, through which the "n" word flows like hot lava until we hardly notice it. Almost hardly.

Nwandu's skill is supported and enhanced by this ensemble as well as Danya Tamor's direction. From the moment we enter the theatre to the notes of Singin' In The Rain, we know that we are entering another world. Kitch and Moses are already onstage, and they will never leave - hence no intermission. These actors execute their roles both as performers and characters with exquisite precision. This is trio on a tightrope.

The conclusion is a hairpin turn that leads us like a highway pile-up to the exact spot we were avoiding. The pieces of the story are laid out like domino tiles, and the conclusion is there - in black and white. No less. The night I was there, the audience, to a person, left the theatre shaken. Some weeping.

I am betting that Nwandu knows this verse by Walt Whitman:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Pass Over puts us on notice that we are all contributing a verse either by commission or omission. All of us. No exceptions. Before she returns our hearts to us, Antoinette Nwandu makes that truth stick to us. Like white on rice.


(Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

What the popular press says...

"The game is called "promised land top ten," and you get the feeling that Moses and Kitch, the main characters in Antoinette Nwandu's blazingly theatrical play Pass Over, have been at it forever, whiling away time and tamping down dread."
Jesse Green for New York Times

"Antoinette Nwandu's play is as scarily funny as it is clear in exploring many forms of violent persecution."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap

"A potent theatricality infuses Antoinette Nwandu's new allegorical play about race relations in America. It's not surprising, considering that the absurdist work bears an obvious stylistic debt to Samuel Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot. While it's unlikely that Pass Over will have as long a life as its inspiration, the work proves a powerfully imaginative drama that will shake up audiences, instantly tagging the playwright as a significant new voice."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - The Wrap - Hollywood Reporter

Originally published on

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