Theater review by Regina Robbins
About two-thirds of the way through Christopher Chen’s extraordinary new play Passage, ensemble member Lizan Mitchell acknowledges that some in the audience may be experiencing a kind of déjà vu. Based on—but in no way bound to—E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, Chen’s text takes colonialism out of any specific racial or temporal context in order to examine power, exploitation and resistance as nakedly as possible. And yet, Mitchell admits, context is everything: Everyone in the room, onstage and off, brings their own life experiences to this moment. Still, she says, “I am trying to bring us all to the same page. Even though…that’s impossible.” She pauses. “Right?”
Passage begins with Q (Andrea Abello), a citizen of Country Y, travelling to join her fiancé in Country X, where he has relocated for “opportunity.” On the way, she encounters F (Linda Powell), another Country Y-er moving to X for work, who is also in search of something deeper that she can’t find in her country of origin. After arriving, F meets B (K.K. Moggie), a Country X doctor who, despite her stellar reputation, is obliged to take orders from her Country Y superiors at the hospital where she works. The trio embark on an excursion to mysterious local caves; there, in darkness, fears and prejudices are exposed and lives are turned upside down.
Stripped of names and nationalities, the characters in Passage (portrayed exclusively by actors of color) are nevertheless totally consumed by the complex relationship between their two countries; every interaction, whether within their own group or with a member of the other, is a miniature debate on the psychology and morality of colonialism. You’ll hear echoes of conflicts from across the globe, including those in our own backyard. Yet intertwined with these political arguments is a real and affecting drama, in which people on both sides of the power divide try to find or hold onto human connection in a hopelessly unjust world.
In director Saheem Ali's production, Chen’s remarkable writing is supported by a design team that does wonders while seeming to do very little; Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting design and Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound and music are especially powerful. Passage dares to raise questions that make the audience profoundly uncomfortable, but simultaneously creates a welcoming space to which everyone is invited. Unashamedly political yet deeply humane, it’s a difficult journey that is well worth the trouble.
Soho Rep (Off Broadway). By Christopher Chen. Directed by Saheem Ali. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40 mins. No intermission.