Speakeasy Stage’s ‘Pass Over’ Packs a Timely Wallop

“Mister (Lewis D. Wheeler), Moses (Kadahj Bennett), and Kitch (Hubens “Bobby” Cius) in Speakeasy Stage’s ‘Pass Over’ – Photos by Nile Scott Studios

 

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.

 

SpeakEasy Stage’s ‘Admissions’ Pierces the Veil of White Male Privilege

Nathan Malin, Maureen Keiller and Michael Kaye in SpeakEasy Stage’s Production of “Admissions.” (Maggie Hall Photography)

By Shelley A. Sackett

Joshua Harmon’s terrific new play “Admissions,” now making its Boston premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company through November 30, packs a timely wallop. Set at and near Hillcrest, a toney progressive New Hampshire prep school, the plucky drama starts out poking fun at Sherri, Hillcrest’s white admissions director who is not happy with the draft of the Admissions Catalog she has just received.

It seems the catalog does not bear adequate witness to the milestone achievement of her 15-year tenure: tripling the diversity of Hillcrest’s predominantly white student body from 6% to 18% students “of color.” She knows this because she has counted all 52 pictures, and only three feature non-white faces. That is precisely 5.7%, and Sherri is livid. She has summoned Roberta, the veteran development officer responsible for the draft, to point out her glaring blunder.

Roberta is Sherri’s opposite. She is a frumpy, plain-spoken woman who calls a spade a spade. She is from another era, when personal qualities and merit mattered more than mathematical quotas. Roberta defiantly defends her work, pointing to a photo that features Perry, the son of a biracial teacher. “Perry’s black, isn’t he?” Roberta asks, confused. “Of course he is, but he doesn’t read black in this photo. He looks whiter than my son,” Sherri counters, exasperated. “I don’t see color. Maybe that’s my problem,” Roberta says.

Cheryl McMahon, Keiller

That exchange sets the stage for Harmon’s intelligent and riotous drama that exposes the raw nerve of hypocrisy among white people of privilege who hide behind political correctness, loudly trumpeting an abstract policy of affirmative action and diversity right up until the moment they are personally impacted by its application. Then, these same folks sing a “not in my backyard” refrain. They may talk the talk (and talk-and talk they do), but when push comes to shove, they would never walk the walk.

Sherri’s husband, Bill, is head of school at Hillcrest, where their 17-year-old high-achieving son, Charlie, is a student hoping to attend Yale with his best friend, the not-visually-black-enough Perry. Perry’s white mother, Ginnie, is Sherri’s best friend, neatly tying a bow that encircles and intertwines the play’s characters.

Ginnie and Sherri hang out a lot. Later that day, in Sherri’s kitchen, both sip white wine and wring their hands over their sons’ fates. Today is the day they will find out if they got into Yale. Harmon’s razor-sharp dialogue reveals the first cringe-worthy chinks in their personal moral codes. Ginnie has brought Charlie a cake from Martin’s Bakery, the same one she bought for Perry, despite evidence the baker is a pedophile. “What are you gonna do? His cakes are great,” she says with a shrug. Sherri shares her catalog fiasco, lying to Ginnie that she couldn’t use the picture of her son because it was blurry.

Marianna Bassham, Keiller

Ginnie receives “the” phone call first – Perry, whose application classified him as black, was accepted. When Charlie is deferred, the victim, he believes, of reverse discrimination, Harmon goes to town as Charlie’s parents’ liberalism and personal ambitions for their son collide. “How did I not see this coming,” Charlie wails, as he points an accusing finger at his parents, the architects of the very quota-driven system that denied him his due. “I don’t have any special boxes to check.”

Later in the intermission-less 105-minute production (no spoilers in this review), Harmon asks his audience the same question faced by Charlie’s horrified parents: what would you do if your child became a casualty of the system of ethics and fairness you champion? Would your moral True North shift?

“Admissions,” with its double-entendre title, captured both Drama Desk and Outer Circle awards for 2018 best play, and the SpeakEasy production is a bases-loaded home run with Nathan Malin (Charlie) as its runaway star. This 20-year-old Boston University College of Fine Arts junior brings depth, vulnerability and physicality to a character that could have become a caricature in less capable hands. Cheryl McMahon is equally outstanding as the well-meaning and misunderstood Roberta and Maureen Keiller (Sherri) and Marianna Bassham(Ginnie) bring humor and humanity to their parts. Hopefully, Michael Kaye (Bill) has smoothed out the edges since press night.

Malin Keiller

Harmon, who’s “Bad Jews” took a whack at religious dogmatists, is gay and Jewish and knows a thing or two about life as a minority. “So much of what I think about revolves around questions of identity,” he said in an interview published in SpeakEasy’s program notes. “This play is trying to hold up a mirror to privilege and white liberalism, while remaining very conscious that this is just one narrow slice of a larger conversation.” For tickets and information, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/

This review first appeared in the Jewish Journal (jewishjournal.org).

‘Admissions’ – Written by Joshua Harmon; Directed by Paul Daigneault; Scenic Design by Eric Levenson; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Stage Managed by Stephen MacDonald. Produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through November 30, 2019.