to right: Jon Michael Hill, Gabriel Ebert, Namir Smallwood (Photo: Joan
by Deirdre Donovan
Chinonye Nwandu’s new work, inspired by Samuel Beckett’s classic Waiting for
Godot and the Exodus story, is right in step with our cultural
moment. Directed by Danya Taymor, it boldly investigates race, social change,
and the human condition. Surreally set in the present, 2021 CE, 1855 CE, and
also 1440 BCE, this 95-minute drama sans intermission can speak to anybody who
has ever been outraged by injustice in our world today.
the lights go up, we meet two black men, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch
(Namir Smallwood), both in their early 20’s. They yearn to leave their ghetto
street and find the American Dream that is just beyond their reach. Or, as the
aptly-named Moses puts it: “Got to rise up to my full potential, be all I could
be . . . and go to that “Promised Land.”’
question that Kitch is gung-ho for Moses’ plan to lead them into the Land of
Milk and Honey. After all, if they could only escape their toxic environment,
they could find opportunities for advancement, live in harmony with others, and
finally taste the “good life.” For Kitch, that would mean living in a penthouse
suite with room service that delivered culinary delicacies (think lobster
rolls, champagne on ice, and caviar). He also would have the time and money to
date Rochelle, his ideal woman, and own his dream car, a bright yellow
power of nomenclature is alive in this play, and it would help to bone up on
your biblical stories and some recent new words added to the Oxford English
Dictionary, most notably “woke.”
playwright has purposefully given her characters mononymous names that hum with
traditional meaning, symbolism, or an “everyman” quality.
the character Moses is cut from the same cloth as his biblical namesake, and he’s
altogether intent on creating social change where he and Kitch can live in
dignity and be safe from police violence.
the character Kitch might not have a name that shouts with the grandeur of his
soul-mate Moses. But Kitch, who starts out as Moses’ sidekick, evolves into
his own man as the action unfolds and he gains his own unmistakable voice.
there’s the owner Mister (Gabriel Ebert) and the enforcer Ossifer (Ebert
again), who are both Caucasians in their late twenties. Scratch beneath the
skin of Mister, and you will find a billionaire, Pharoah, and a planter;
similarly scratch Ossifer and a cop, patroller, and God’s Chosen take on
flesh-and-blood. If this all sounds a tad confusing, give Nwandu’s play a
chance to work its magic, And you soon will find yourself, as I did, leaning
forward in your seat to catch the next line crossing the footlights.
never dull. But the character Mister acts as a catalyst in it,
ratcheting up the dramatic action wherever he sets his foot. Mister
materializes thirty minutes in, startling Moses and Kitch, who act as if a
ghost suddenly had floated into their space. And, truth be told, that’s
precisely what has happened here. Call Mister an apparition, a spectre, or
time-traveler from the past, he is an unsettling presence in the play’s world,
despite his well-groomed appearance and impeccable social manners. Dressed in
an expensive white suit, and holding a small picnic basket, he clearly looks
out of place on a ghetto street.
why has Mister drifted in? Well, Mister explains it in familial terms. He
tells Moses and Kitch that he had intended to visit his ill mother before he
“got turned around” and lost. Moses and Kitch let Mister’s words soak in, but
all the while they are sizing him up. Yes, they ultimately accept Mister’s
offer to break bread with him. But during the course of their impromptu meal,
they realize that Mister shares the same deep-rooted racial prejudices as his
with sensitive ears should be warned that the “n-word” is liberally peppered
into Nwandu’s script. In fact, Moses and Kitch bandy the “n-word” back and
forth, non-stop in their verbal exchanges. Is it a term of affection for each
other? Or is it simply a word they have ingested with their mother’s milk and
is now organically part of them? In any event, the “n-word” recurs in the
dialogue, time and again, and it’s evident that it can trigger strong emotions,
especially if it comes out of the mouth of a white man.
acting is superb. Jon Michael Hill disappears into his character Moses,
combining prophetic fervor with down-to-earth language and sensibilities.
Namir Smallwood is ideal as Kitch, a character who starts out as a foil for the
dynamo Moses but comes into his own as the drama progresses. Gabriel Ebert
does double-duty here, in his roles as Mister/Ossifer. Ebert has incredible
range as an actor (he won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Mister Wormwood in Mathilda
the Musical), and in this current production, you get to see him stretch
some new acting muscles. Ebert performs Mister with the requisite social graces
but adds a dash of vulnerability that humanizes his character. His Ossifer, in
sharp contrast, is the embodiment of a policeman gone wrong, an authority
figure who pathologically preys on those he is supposed to protect.
good acting is key for any production to succeed, so are the efforts of the
creative team. And, fortunately, the creatives here are top-notch. Wilson’s
Chin’s set design is a study in minimalism (except for the final scenes that
bring lush vegetation on stage), with its stripped-down stage and sparse props
(think lamp-post, spare tire, and wire cage). Lit in chiarasco tones by Marcus
Doshi, with an array of costumes by Sarafina Bush that reflect each character’s
bent, and pitch-perfect sound design (prepare to hear snatches of the classic
songs “Over the Rainbow” and Oklahoma’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”)
by Justin Ellington, this creative team is in fine fettle.
off? Passover’s ending is very ambiguous and lacks the dramatic
clarity that makes the rest of the play so compelling. Perhaps the playwright
simply couldn’t make up her mind on whether to pen a dark or upbeat finale. I
won’t be a spoiler here and reveal the finale. But I do recommend that you buy
a ticket, and decide for yourself whether Pass Over lands on its
what you will, Pass Over is a real triumph for its playwright and should
be given the sobriquet, Restorer of Broadway. After all, it goes down in the
history books as the play that re-opened Broadway after the pandemic
lock-down. And that’s a real reason to celebrate.
Sunday October 10th.
the August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street, Manhattan.
tickets, visit SeatGeek.com.
time: 95 minutes with no intermission.