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Theater review by Raven Snook
For many black men, living in a country that was built on slavery and still struggles with ingrained notions of white supremacy feels absurd, dispiriting and paralyzing. Playwright Antoinette Nwandu has devised an ingenious and unsettling way to dramatize that terrifying state of existence by fusing the Exodus story with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The result is Pass Over, an intimate political play that grapples with epic themes and is likely to leave you shaken.
Kitch (Namir Smallwood) and Moses (Jon Michael Hill, who originated the role last year at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre) spend their lives bantering and badgering each other under a lamppost on an unidentified city street corner. In poetic, profanity-laden exchanges, they fantasize about the promised land they heard about in Sunday school, lament peers lost to prison and violence, and insist they’re going to leave the block someday and rise to their full potential.
A white man, played by an unrecognizable Gabriel Ebert (Matilda), interrupts Moses and Kitch’s well-honed routine. Dressed in a seersucker suit, with an old-fashioned picnic basket and a penchant for exclaiming “Gosh golly gee!,” he looks like he’s stepped out of an old Southern plantation, but the awkward conversation they share is wholly contemporary. His self-professed progressive politics and generosity of spirit belie his true feelings, and the double casting of Ebert as a sadistic white cop underlines the idea that oppression comes in many forms, some less obvious than others.
When Pass Over played in Chicago, several critics were accused of writing racially insensitive reviews; the surrounding hubbub attracted the attention of Spike Lee, who filmed a version of the play that can now be streamed on Amazon Prime. Nwandu has made significant changes to the script since then, especially in the final chilling speech, which makes the work even more upsetting. Director Danya Taymor keeps the pace popping, so the moments when everything stops hit hard, as when Moses and Kitch throw up their hands in fear, surrendering to an unseen power. She elicits heartrending performances from Hill and Smallwood, who fully inhabit their loquacious street philosophers, and Ebert is careful that his symbolic characters don’t slip into cliché.
Although much of its repartee is quite funny, Pass Over is a tough show. It’s intended to challenge and cause discomfort, and a lot is left to interpretation. The copious use of the N-word is sure to rankle some audiences, but Moses and Kitch aren’t here to entertain you. They have a life-or-death message to pass on.
Claire Tow Theater (Off Broadway). By Antoinette Nwandu. Directed by Danya Taymor. With Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood, Gabriel Ebert. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission.