Kitch (Namir Smallwood) and Moses (Jon Michael Hill) are planning to get “off dis block here.” The block in question is a sidewalk, a street lamp, and a prison. Kitch and Moses know it’s a prison; early in the play, Moses calls it a “plantation.” But they remain nevertheless, like those who refuse to leave Socrates’ cave, motivated by camaraderie, learned helplessness, and a fear of liberation. They spend their time grandstanding, trading fantasies, and analyzing their situation. Occasionally, the lights change, and Kitch and Moses throw their hands in the air, responding, presumably, to a police threat. When they do this, they face out, toward the audience.
In Pass Over, playwright Antoinette Nwandu tries to envision what salvation would look like for these characters. There is parabolic quality to the action, and I was reminded of both John Bunyan and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody. While not universal, the story is collective. Note, for example, that Mister, a white Pollyanna (is that redundant?), is played by a man (Gabriel Ebert) but understudied by a woman (Andrea Syglowski). The bodies are not as important as what they represent.
The only people Kitch and Moses encounter are Mister, along with a police officer, Ossifier (also Ebert). The latter allows the pair to linger as long as they use their “white voice” but turns violent once they drop it. Mister is friendlier and more insidious. He arrives lost but cheerful and full of gosh golly gees. He had meant to visit his mother, but now it’s too late, and why don’t they all share his basket full of “good food”? Kitch is eager, Moses reluctant, and we can see why: Mister is generous when he is happy, but when he is confused or upset, he bites the hands he feeds. “EVERYTHING’S MINE!” he shouts when Moses tells him the N-word “iss not’chors.” Furthermore, when confronted with white supremacist violence, he pleads ignorance. “Ain’tchu heard nuthin?” Moses asks about the police murdering Black people. “No, I’m sorry, I haven’t,” Mister replies. Pause. “Say, it isn’t safe out here.”
Pass Over is the first play on Broadway since the pandemic and, if people hold the line, is a sign of good to come. It is sad and funny and infuriating. It doesn’t pander to the audience and it doesn’t offer reassuring answers. All three actors are terrific, and the set design by Wilson Chin is spare without being small, a challenge made no easier by the transfer from the Claire Tow Theater. This is worth the venture indoors.
And how much faith does Nwandu have in salvation? She leaves the question unanswered, but I can’t imagine she sees it as a near possibility. It was Joshua, after all, not Moses, who led the Israelites to the promised land.
Pass Over runs through October 10th at the August Wilson Theatre. 245 West 52nd Street New York, NY. 1 hour 35 minutes. No intermission. Photograph by Joan Marcus.