Two men standing on a desolate street corner with a lamppost shining on a blasted, deserted, space save for a garbage can, a patch of weeds, a tire, a wire milk carton. Such is the material/empirical setting reminiscent in its isolation and abstract loneliness of Samuel Beckett’s setting in ‘Waiting For Godot.’ Likewise the comedic and clown-like Moses (the brilliant Jon Michael Hill) and his Homie, clowning sidekick Kitch (the brilliant Namir Smallwood) appear similar to Vladimir and Estragon. However, they are not. They are black. And where Vladimir and Estragon “wait,” unafraid, bored, wiling away the hours, Moses and Kitch exist in a hellish landscape afraid of death at the hands of the “PoPos,” shorthand for police.
Whether one has seen Beckett’s Godot or not, doesn’t matter. The isolation of these two individuals and their express desires to leave this heartless existence that holds the terror of black men dying by a simulated “justice” which is tantamount to the injustice of lynching is conveyed with empathy and poignancy by the creative team of actors and director Danya Taymor. With acute care, emotional grist, comedic genius and dynamic drama, they bring to stark, felt life, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s haunting, memorable dialogue in Pass Over, currently running at the August Wilson Theatre in a cool, streamlined no intermission production.
When we first meet the likable Moses and Kitch, we understand their camaraderie and support for one another, as well as the similarity of their desires, fantasizing about the finer things of a luxurious, material, elite lifestyle. Though Moses is the leader and Kitch is his follower and admirer, their synchronicity and dependency is clear, for they wish to “pass over,” to get to the “promised land,” the “land of milk and honey” represented by the “American Dream.”
And whether we have eaten lobster or drank Crystal, like they wish to, we, too, have craved the finer things of life and may even feel a sense of superiority that we have experienced them, where these impoverished of the ghetto block can only entertain themselves and each other by dreaming about such extravagances in a humorous and ironic game which has become a way of bonding between them.
Fifteen minutes in to the thrust and parry of humor, the gaming is interrupted by a Pavlovian signal that has brainwashed them to fear: the stage floods momentarily with a steely light and a dull, blaring warning sound. (It reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film War of the Worlds, when there sounds a far-reaching alarm announcing the aliens’ presence.) We learn later that Moses and Kitch recognize this alarm as the sound of death; that another black friend or acquaintance in their neighborhood has been killed by police. They cower and crouch in fear until the light and sound normalizes to the stasis of desolation, and once again they return to humor and the grace of planning to escape and go somewhere where they can live free from fear in a greater abundance of prosperity than their current existence.
However, there are two caveats. They must elude the PoPos, as Moses led the Israelites to elude the angel of death which “passed over” the the First Born if the blood of the lamb was on the doorposts of the Israelites’ homes. Secondly, the PoPos expect them to remain on the block to never escape their oppression and misery. Thus, they are free only in their games, humor and imagination, while their physical bodies are subject to the reality of their dire existence with the threat of death hanging over their lives. Will they be able to “pass over” and escape death? The symbolism is spiritual with possibilities for escaping all of what the playwright infers elements of the death state is in this life.
Into their ghetto corner (which the playwright suggests symbolizes as historical oppression and redemption-a river’s edge, a plantation, a desert city built by slaves and a new world on the horizon) comes Mister who slips up and calls himself Master (the wonderful Gabriel Ebert). Taymor has him ironically dressed in a white suit and vest, such as gentlemen of the Old South used to wear on or off the plantation. Mister, intending to visit his ill mother with a picnic basket of food, inexplicably gets lost and arrives with his bounty to the ghetto block.
At first Moses, whom his religion teacher encouraged to live up to his namesake, the Biblical Moses, proudly eschews Mister’s offer of food charity, though both he and Kitch are hungry. However, sociable, “good-natured” Mister cajoles and tempts them. And after he massages their egos with charm and humility, he shares some of the delicious food in his basket with Moses and Kitch in a wonderfully humorous staged scene.
We note the roles between the individuals and hints of seduction and exploitation, expecting some catastrophe, however, Nwandu has tricks up her sleeve and the situation with Mister is as it appears. Mister worms his way into their hearts and they become friendly. And for a fascinating moment they forget about “getting off the block,” and being all they can be, lulled by the food. Intriguingly, Mister chides them for abusing their use of the “N” word which he cannot use, because as Moses suggests, he doesn’t own that word.
It is an ironic gesture since it is perhaps the only “thing” Mister doesn’t “own,” as a representative of the dominant oppressor race. Though Mister doesn’t “own” their black identity which they have accepted as their own, is it something which is good for them or is it another trick of oppression? After Mister leaves, Moses and Kitch realize that adopting that identity is a trick of the white culture and the PoPos, for by inference, the “N” label associates with low-down and/or slovenly criminal behavior, regardless of whether they are deserving of such labels or not. Ironically, they have proudly accepted that term as their identity, but it has resulted in black male deaths at the hands of the police.
Deciding to cover for themselves, using Mister’s gentile manners, they avoid trouble, when Ossifer (a police officer played by Gabriel Ebert who is the different side of the same coin as Mister) shows up. Moses and Kitch become “gentlemen” in word and action, imitating Mister. It works. Ossifer leaves them alone and protects them as culturally “white” until Kitch slips up and uses the “N” word triggering the brutality of the police officer who confronts them as their oppressor to control, belittle and demean. Under these circumstances we feel the depressive desolation of the historical and current inferior “slave.” And Ossifer terrorizes them reminding them that their lives are only useful for living in fear and misery as “the controlled.” The only respite Moses and Kitch have is the humor and hope Kitch and Moses stir up within themselves and share with each other to make existence bearable until they can “pass over.”
In an amazing turning point, Nwandu clarifies a new meaning for the term Moses references from the Bible, “pass over.” It is a spiritual one that Moses convinces Kitch they must now seek, no longer wanting to deal with the despair and long trial of a desolate existence.
Taymor, shepherding Hill, Smallwood and Ebert creates extreme tension throughout. Especially when Ebert as Mister and Ossifer shows up. The atmosphere is that of a pressure cooker sizzling until it seethes into an explosion which does occur. We, like Moses and Kitch, expect the blast after every joke, around every game they play, especially when the alarm sounds and lights flare up that the PoPos have killed another black man. Nwandu cleverly distorts the thrust of the heat and danger providing extraordinary twists in the turn of evolving events. These become revelatory, magical and lead to the unexpected and heartfelt.
The beauty of the conclusion is in its realization of a return to an ideal which isn’t actually some pie in the sky fantasy, but is present and real. In the production it occurs with the help of and extraordinary supernatural intervention as happened to the Biblical Moses. Taking one step forward after another, Moses, Kitch and Ossifer (a reborn Christopher) are released and the imagined consciousness comes into being. However, the lure of what’s past beckons. One must not turn around to be enticed, or everything will be lost in the material plane where the human race has crashed and burned for millennia.
Pass Over is a must see for its fantastic performances, its uniqueness, its joy, despair, thematic truths and its wonderful faith and hope in human nature. I could not help but be gratified that there were no female characters. Their absence is lyrically pointed. The production is mesmerizing and I have nothing but praise for how the playwright, director and actors connected with the truth of what we face as a multifaceted and diverse society that is desperately crying out for healing and redemption. But as Nwandu suggests, the promised land is already here. We must look to our own inner strengths and step out to cross that “river”and never turn back.
Kudos to the creative team that made this production fly and whose effects helped to send chills down my spine and tears down my face. They include Wilson Chin (scenic design) Sarafina Bush (costume design) Marcus Doshi (lighting design) and Justin Ellington (sound design). Pass Over runs until the 10th of October. This is one you cannot miss. For tickets and times go to the Pass Over website by clicking HERE.