'Pass Over': Theater Review

PASS OVER - Namir Smallwood -Gabriel Ebert - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel
Packs a punch.

Two young black men encounter a mysterious white stranger in Antoinette Nwandu's allegorical drama seen previously at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, where it was filmed by Spike Lee.

A potent theatricality infuses Antoinette Nwandu's new allegorical play about race relations in America. It's not surprising, considering that the absurdist work bears an obvious stylistic debt to Samuel Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot. While it's unlikely that Pass Over will have as long a life as its inspiration, the work proves a powerfully imaginative drama that will shake up audiences, instantly tagging the playwright as a significant new voice.

The play was previously seen at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre; a performance filmed there by Spike Lee premiered at Sundance and is now available for streaming on Amazon.

It takes place on a bleak urban street featuring little more than a lamppost and an abandoned tire. The locale appears to be the home of two African-American men, Moses (Jon Michael Hill of TV's Elementary) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood), who pass the time exchanging profanity-laden banter that includes making mock calls to room service to order sumptuous repasts. They also constantly worry about the dangers of their harsh environment, especially from the police, whom they call "the po-pos." True to his name, Moses dreams of leading them both to the promised land: "Pass ovuh!" Kitch agrees.

Their routine is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of an affable white man (Gabriel Ebert, a Tony winner for Matilda) singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and clad in an all-white suit while carrying a picnic basket. Kitch and Moses assume the stranger must be either a Mormon or a police officer, but he assures them that he's simply going to visit his ailing mother. Constantly using such expressions as "Gosh" and "Golly gee," the man offers the pair some food. The bountiful feast he proceeds to remove from his small basket provides the evening with one of its most memorable sight gags.

The friendly encounter soon becomes tense, however, especially when Moses addresses the stranger as "Mister."

"Master," the man corrects him. "My name is Master." He later comments disapprovingly about the two men's constant use of the "N-word," pointing out that there's a double standard. "If I don't get to say the N-word, why do you?" he asks.

The arrival of a second visitor, a police officer (Ebert, again), leads to a tense confrontation that soon turns violent. But Moses, suddenly displaying miraculous powers, manages to vanquish their oppressor. It's a victory that ultimately proves short-lived, leading to a final monologue by one of the characters, the conclusion of which literally draws gasps from the audience.

Pass Over is more effective thematically than as drama. The dialogue at times feels aimless and repetitive, especially in the lengthy scenes featuring just Moses and Kitch. Its reliance on the constant use of the "N-word," to quote Master, starts out as provocative before becoming forced. The narrative lurches confusingly, and some of the symbolism and its meanings prove elusive. But there's no denying that the work packs a powerful punch, one that's fully realized in this production, superbly staged by Danya Taymor. The lighting and sound design (by Marcus Doshi and Justin Ellington, respectively) add greatly to the ominous effect.

The three actors deliver gut-wrenching performances. Hill and Smallwood vividly convey their characters' intriguing combination of strength and desperation as well as the dark humor to which they resort to cope with their barren existence. Ebert is masterful in his dual roles, especially his Master, whose disarming courtliness masks something much darker. He's an amusing figure, at least until the laughter becomes caught in our throats. Much the same can be said of the darkly unsettling play.

Venue: Claire Tow Theater, New York
Cast: Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood, Gabriel Ebert
Playwright: Antoinette Nwandu
Director: Danya Taymor
Set designer: Wilson Chin
Costume designer: Sarafina Bush
Lighting designer: Marcus Doshi
Sound designer: Justin Ellington
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater