Review: PASS OVER (from New York)

by Lynn on June 27, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Claire Tow Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater, New York City.

Written by Antoinette Nwandu

Directed by Danya Taymor

Set by Wilson chin

Costumes by Sarafina Bush

Lighting by Marcus Doshi

Sound Justin Ellington

Cast: Gabriel Ebert

Jon Michael Hill

Namir Smallwood

A play that  examines the lives of two young black men who dream of a better life but are afraid of being killed because they are black. An astonishing, gut-wrenching play, beautifully acted and directed.

The Story. Two young black men named Moses and Kitch, pass the time on the street, in an unnamed American city, jiving, dreaming and planning about leaving the block and to “pass over” to a better life. They meet a courtly, fashionably dressed man (white) carrying a picnic basket full of food for his mother. He has lost his way and shares some of the food with the two men. They ask his name. He says: “Master.” They recoil. (in the program it says “Mister” but I heard “Master”.) He said that is his last name. They are still wary and he leaves in a huff. A police officer approaches them and again they are terrified of his job and what he might do to them. When he leaves the two men slowly begin jiving again. Then the white, well-dressed man returns.

The Production. Director Danya Taymor has directed this with stunning details. Irony is everywhere in her gripping, vital production. The most lilting show tunes play: “Singing in the Rain”, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” There are three notes for “Time: Now. Right now. But also 1855. But also the 13th century BCE”. There are three notes for “Place: A ghetto street. A lamppost. Night. But also a plantation. But also Egypt, a city built by slaves.”

Wilson Chin has designed a stark set. There is a very tall lamppost. There is a large tire rim stage left and a large tire off the rim at the bottom of the lamppost. There are a two wire crates on the sidewalk.

As the audience files in Moses sleeps on the ground with his legs on the tire. Kitch calmly looks off in the distance. He wanders around the set. He sits on one crate. At times he seems agitated. Is he looking out for someone? I thought I had read about ‘smack’ in one of the descriptions of the play. Is he waiting for drugs? Why do I assume that? The playwright is making us face our assumptions and presumptions and prejudices.

Kitch (Namir Smallwood) wears his baseball cap backwards. He wears jeans, a vest. Street garb. He is thin, wiry and easy going. When Moses (Jon Michael Hill) wakes up he is also in layers of street garb and his pants are hung low. He too wears his baseball cap backwards. Moses is muscular, excitable and more likely to make a suggestion of what they should do.

Immediately upon waking both Moses and Kitch play word games, top ten games of what they would wish for if they could have anything. (Air Jordans, the love of a certain woman). They each take off their jackets and throw them gracefully in the air to each other and put the clothing on. They do that game again later in the play. They long to pass over to a better life. They yearn to leave that block for a better existence. They glow with the idea of a better life.

When Mister/Master arrives, (a courtly Gabriel Ebert but with a hint of danger) he wears a cream coloured suit, tie, preppy shirt, pocket puff and two-toned shoes. He is dapper but also could be a plantation owner. That analogy fits right in.

Occasionally the lights change in a snap so that Moses and Kitch look like they are in headlights. Their arms immediately go up in the air and they are trembling in terror. They believe they are in the headlights of the police. When a police officer, (noted as “Ossifer” in the program) approaches the men he is menacing. He wears sunglasses at night, has the billy club in his hands. He is also played by Gabriel Ebert only this time he is menacing, terrifying and so dangerous. He threatens Moses to repeat the litany: that black men are: “lazy, stupid and violent.” I am heartsick at this. In fact they are unarmed, not threatening, passive and waiting to get off that block.

At one point Moses suggests after all that waiting and threatening of their lives by the “Ossifer” that they find another way to get off that block, to pass “over”. He looks up at the very high lamppost. We get his meaning.

Comment. This is one muscular, vital, uncompromising, in-your-face play. Playwright Antoinette Nwandu has written dialogue that sings, is poetic and has rhythm that only a black man can say. The ‘N’ word zings through the air as Moses and Kitch jive, tease, joke and challenge each other. When “Master/Mister” tries and hesitates to say the word Moses chides him and says that word is not his. He cannot even think of saying the word.

It is tempting to say that no one should say the word because of its pejorative connotation but that’s a presumption (a white person’s presumption) and it’s wrong. Moses and Kitch use the word as an affectionate greeting. And as they and Ms Nwandu say, it’s a word that is not ours so just ‘shut up.’ (this last part is me)  A truth that flies at me and hits me in the face with a smack.

Ms Nwandu has written a play about how black men are threatened and even killed for the simple reason they are black. And of course she has used Waiting for Godot as a framework. Just as Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Mr. Godot in Samuel Beckett’s play so Moses and Kitch are waiting also, to get off that block and a better life. How telling that we accept two white tramps waiting on a road by a tree for Mr. Godot (we don’t know the reason but we accept it) and two black men on a sidewalk waiting for a better life is not accepted as ok, are looked at with suspicion. Only here the stakes are higher than in Beckett’s masterpiece.

Yup I like being upset when I must face my presumptions and assumptions. Terrific, upsetting, unsettling, smart, angry play.

Presented by Lincoln Center Theater

Opened: June 18 2018

Closes: July 15, 2018

Running Time: 85 minutes.

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