By Shelley A. Sackett
Even before ‘Pass Over’ begins, as theatergoers blithely check emails and jockey for their seats, the actors make clear theirs is a production that will claim one’s full attention and engagement. Two young scruffy black men, dressed in hoodies, oversized footwear and hats, prowl around the sparse stage, demanding eye contact and flirting with the women in the front row. By the time the house lights go down and the stage lights go up, these two have established an uneasy arms-length rapport with the audience.
Moses (Kadahj Bennett) and Kitch (Hubens “Bobby” Cius) hang out on their street corner under the watchful eye of a lone street light, to which they seem to be tethered by an invisible leash. They pass their unemployed time talking about their hopes and dreams, waiting for a sign that their life is about to start in earnest. They count off the names of those unarmed friends and family members killed by the police – “Po-pos”- while playing a game called “Promised Land Top Ten.” They take turns naming the ten things they would like to see when they “pass over” to paradise – ranging from clean socks to a brother back from the dead – but the undercurrent of anxiety and foreboding darkens the spirit of their light-hearted banter. The threat of violence from the police looms darkly beyond the four corners of their tight quarters and it takes all their energy to keep panic at bay. Lighting bursts and menacing sound eruptions add to the unease.
Playwright Antoinette Nwandu has fashioned her blistering, complex and ambitious 2019 Lortel Award winner for Outstanding Play as a sweeping landscape to address systemic racism, police brutality, gun violence, slavery and the Exodus story of freedom from oppression. She uses Samuel Beckett’s absurdist canon, “Waiting for Godot,” as a stylistic framework and while familiarity with that play is not required, it doesn’t hurt.
Yet, Nwandu imbues Moses and Kitch with such humanity and personality that they are hardly absurdist symbols, but rather fully fleshed out individuals whose plights are heartbreaking. Both Bennett and Cius give award-worthy performances that paint an intimate camaraderie through dance, verbal games and elaborate bumps. Bennett’s Moses is a pillar of discipline, strength and optimism. He is resolved to escape this dead end. “You’re going to live up to your true potential. I’m going to lead you,” he tells Kitch. Cius plays Kitch as Moses’s sweet puppy-dog younger brother, full of frenetic, unfocused energy and blinding desire to please.
The play’s two white characters are “Mister,” a wolf-like dandy off to visit his grandmother with a picnic basket, and a racist, sadistic thug of a police officer. Lewis D. Wheeler plays both with a razor sharp but impersonal crispness that is both intimidating and merciless. Both are cartoonish, flat and soulless, especially compared to Moses and Kitch.
Much has been written about the play’s use of the “n-word” and the opinions are as numerous as the critics who pen them. When Moses and Kitch use it, the term is one of endearment, companionship and solidarity. When uttered by Mister or the policeman, the term drips with venom and malevolence. What is not ambiguous is whether Nwandu intends her generous use of the word to indicate a green light for its acceptance in contemporary speech. “Aside from the actors saying the lines of dialogue while in character, this play is in no way, shape, or form an invitation for anyone to use the n-word,” she notes in the script.
“Pass Over” is an important work by a playwright with a strong, smart, original voice, performed by an all-star cast. Anyone who values serious thought-provoking theater should not miss this stellar production. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/
‘Pass Over’ – Written by Antoinette Nwandu; Directed by Monica White Ndounou; Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Kathy A. Perkins; Sound Design by Anna Drummond. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective at Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion through February 2.