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

A tragicomic play invites comparison with other works, but ultimately stands on its own.

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.)

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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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Mister encounters Moses and Kitch by accident, or so he says, and offers them food from a seemingly bottomless picnic basket that he prepared for a visit to his mother. This evocation of Little Red Riding Hood and Mary Poppins does not go unnoticed, especially when Mister purports to have lost his way. “I do so want to get where I was going,” he notes, before settling into a chat with the men. Yet Mister’s charming veneer falls at several points — one verbal (the icy proclamation “I have the power” that stops all action for a moment) and one physical in the play’s final moments.

This hyper-theatrical world, sparely designed by Wilson Chin, is animated by theatrical magic: a huge lamplight and random street detritus, including a tire, crate, and deflated basketball, which form Moses and Kitch’s living room furniture. Here, director Taymor creates a world crackling with theatricality, with characters often more metaphorical than realistic. There’s a choreographed fight involving Ossifer in which the characters don’t touch but where the space in between them is electrified.

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As the story proceeds in this passive, aurally pleasant world, Moses and Kitch discuss their desire to “pass over” into another safe, clean, comfortable world beyond their experience and barely within their imagining. In one iteration of their game, Moses proposes a “Promised Land Top 10” — 10 things he wishes for when he can pass over to a better life: hold a full plate of food, find a girlfriend, see deceased family members, sleep in soft sheets. One wish list item broke my heart with its specificity: a drawer full of clean socks.

In Pass Over, we are asked to confront our complicity in social and interpersonal violence. The fact that you may leave the theater humming familiar musical theater tunes may surprise you. That your nerves may be jangled from several surprising plot moments may thrill you. If it is not a perfect play that seeks a balance between bawdy and devastating, this playwright’s voice is nevertheless strong and important.