The Citiblog

August 22, 2021, 6:49.13 pm ET


Photo: Joan Marcus

In an era where the media – from the nightly TV news to the daily newspapers -- have made all of us painfully aware of the plight of young black men in America being persecuted (and even killed) with alarming regularity by Caucasian policemen, one might initially think we don’t need a Broadway play to make us face this national tragedy head on. Well, think again. Playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s gripping “Pass Over,” now being presented for a limited run at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre under Danya Taymor’s astute direction, finds its own singular way to shine a light (technically, a streetlight) on the personal, systemic and institutional racism that pervades this country.

Nwandu places her two main characters, the outwardly intense Moses (a truly superb Jon Michael Hill, all swagger and jumpiness) and the seemingly more sensitive Kitch (the excellent Namir Smallwood, perfectly alternating between humor and sadness) on a large stretch of desolate sidewalk. Borrowing liberally from Samuel Beckett’s existential classic “Waiting for Godot,” Nwandu has these two young men pass the time engaging in repetitive, profanity-filled conversations and playing the occasionally “game” (as in naming the 10 things they most want), all while waiting – not for God(ot) -- but for the inevitable nightly visit from the “po-po” (police), who may or may not put a bullet in their heads.

Watching these clearly intelligent men wasting their lives is nothing short of heartbreaking. They ache to “pass over” -– move to another block (or eventually another reality) –- but the real threat of being killed, like so many of their black brethren throughout history, tethers them firmly in place. (According to program notes, the show’s is listed as taking place in the future (present), 2021, 1855 and the 1440 BCE.)

Although it takes a while, Nwandu eventually introduces two white characters to proceedings (both played brilliantly by Tony Award winner Gabriel Ebert): the first is a too-courtly, too-pleasant gentleman who claims to have lost his way bring food to his mother’s house (deliberately echoing the Big Bad Wolf) and, soon after, one of the “po-pos,” a hulking, intimidating officer who derives his entire persona from the power his uniform and weapons bestows upon him. Both men are clearly there to make the audience (as well the guys) feel uncomfortable, a feat which Nwandu and Ebert both pull off with great skill.

Those theatergoers who saw the play in its original incarnation at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater in 2018 know that Nwandu initially chose what felt like an inevitable, tragic ending for this 90-minute work. Now, for the Broadway run – and given what America has lived through in the past three years – she has completely rewritten the final 15 minutes to end the evening on a much more hopeful note.

In honesty, the new conclusion feels a bit forced, or maybe just rushed in its writing, but one cannot argue with its admirable intention or with how committed the three actors (who all performed the play in 2018) are to Nwandu’s changes. (Special kudos, go as well, to scenic designer Wilson Chin, whose work in this section is nothing less than extraordinary!)

Given the discomfiting nature of the piece -- and the natural desire for uplifting material in this difficult, pandemic-laden world -- many audiences will be tempted to pass on “Pass Over.” Do not pass. Go!

--Brian Scott Lipton