A Play Caught in the Crossfire

Posted June 14, 2018 7:26 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Antoinette Nwandu was at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago last June, about to fly home to New Jersey, when her phone started dinging with notifications. Her play “Pass Over” had just opened at Steppenwolf Theater Co. and Nwandu was exhausted from constant rewrites. She and director Danya Taymor had agreed that they wouldn’t read reviews yet. First, they would take a week or so to bask in what they had achieved.

Nwandu’s phone kept going off, though, and by the time her plane landed, she couldn’t ignore what was happening: A controversy had erupted around her first major production. A contemporary Exodus story fitted to a “Waiting for Godot” frame, “Pass Over” — an LCT3 production that opens Monday at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theater — is set in a corner of an unnamed city where two African-American men live in fear of being shot dead by police.

Inspired partly by the killing of Trayvon Martin, with main characters whose names, Moses and Kitch, Nwandu borrowed from a South Carolina slavery manifest, it is a Black Lives Matter play layered with the past. But the catalyst for the clamor in Chicago, a city enduring a crisis of gun violence, wasn’t what Nwandu had written. It was a review of “Pass Over” in the Chicago Sun-Times, which, among other objections, took vehement exception to the way that Nwandu, who is black, depicted a white police officer.

Many in the local theater scene swiftly condemned the review as racist. Steppenwolf, one of the nation’s premier regional theaters, accused the veteran critic who wrote it, Hedy Weiss, who is white, of “deep-seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism.”

A petition went up online, citing a pattern of “racism, homophobia, and body shaming” in Weiss’ writing and calling for theaters to stop inviting her to review their shows. Nwandu — who did some theater criticism herself before she realized that she wanted to make plays, not review them — signed it. In American Theater magazine, she wrote about the reaction to her play. But mostly, she said in an interview one afternoon this month, the hubbub felt “like being invited to dinner at somebody’s house, and during dinner that person and their family get into a fight about you, while you’re just sitting there.”

Calm, unpretentious and wry, she was sitting just then at a table in the decidedly utilitarian cafeteria of Borough of Manhattan Community College in Tribeca, where she taught for 7 1/2 years, after earning an English degree from Harvard and a pair of master’s degrees — the first in cultural politics, from the University of Edinburgh; the second in dramatic writing, from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Nwandu, 38, grew up in Los Angeles in a deeply religious family; she was the first to go to college. As an undergraduate at Harvard, writing for The Crimson, she flirted with thoughts of a journalism career until she realized that the most tedious part of reporting was getting quotes when she already knew what she wanted people to say. Recalling that, she laughed — at herself and also at how shocked her Crimson colleagues were that she’d voice such a thought. Making up dialogue: a journalist’s scandal, a playwright’s skill.

But a few months after she graduated from Tisch, in 2008, the economy tanked and she was glad to take a job at the community college where she taught introductory theater and public speaking.

She felt torn, in that class, between the imperative to teach the kind of decorous speech that would be helpful in a job interview and the desire to hear the authentic voices of her young black and brown students, profanities and all. That’s the way Moses and Kitch talk.

She was on the verge of burnout two years ago when she abruptly quit. Told that she couldn’t take time off to attend rehearsals of “Pass Over” at the Cherry Lane Theater Mentor Project — the kind of artistic obligation that conservatory programs regularly accommodate — she chose theater over a steady paycheck.

“She took an amazing chance on herself,” Taymor said in a separate interview. “You see the power of that commitment in the returns.”

Such as: Last August, after the Steppenwolf production had closed, Nwandu was back in Chicago with another play, “Tuvalu,” when her agents called. Director Spike Lee — whose film “Chi-Raq” is a riff on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” set amid gang warfare in contemporary Chicago — had read “Pass Over.” He wanted to talk.

“As my fiancé will tell you, I’m not great at getting good news,” Nwandu said. “I’m always like, ‘What’s the catch?'” So she was hesitant in her first telephone conversation with Lee. “I was like, ‘A: You didn’t see it in the theater. You’re just reading it. And, B: I might not be done with it.'”

Two hours later, she said, he called again to tell her that he was flying to Chicago so they could talk face to face. Over dinner, he said he wouldn’t ask for any of the rights to the stage production, that he didn’t care if she changed the play in the future but that he wanted to capture it in its current form on film in Chicago. She was convinced.

So at Steppenwolf in September, with the same cast plus one additional actor, in front of a mostly black invited audience, Lee secretly shot what is largely Taymor’s production, remounted for the film. He used 10 cameras, placing some behind or above the stage.

By January, they were at Sundance with the film, also titled “Pass Over,” when Lee asked Nwandu what she was doing in February — his way of dropping a job into her lap. She took it, becoming a staff writer on his Netflix series, “She’s Gotta Have It.” In March, she got engaged to her boyfriend, Graham Schmidt, a director. In April, “Pass Over” was released on Amazon Video. And this month, as a way of coaxing her younger sisters to New York for the opening of “Pass Over” at LCT3, she’s going shopping for a wedding dress. A lot has happened in a year and not just for Nwandu. In Chicago, where the Sun-Times defended its critic, Weiss, during the “Pass Over” controversy, it eliminated her job last winter. She still reviews, for the local PBS affiliate, and in an interview she said she wouldn’t have done anything differently in her “Pass Over” review.

Noting that she has covered African-American work in Chicago for almost all of the 34 years she has been a theater critic there, she called the accusation of racism against her “ludicrous” and echoed an assertion she made in her review — that in focusing on police violence against black men, “Pass Over” unfairly ignores what she called “black-on-black” gun violence. “You have to face all of it at once and be honest about it,” Weiss said.

Altering the play’s focus was never on Nwandu’s agenda, though she has used the Lincoln Center run to revisit her text. The New York production has the same director and one of the same actors, Jon Michael Hill (of the CBS drama “Elementary”), but Nwandu and Taymor have made some significant changes since Chicago.

What’s held steady is whose point of view “Pass Over” represents: two young men, unarmed and dreaming desperately of a better life, afraid of being killed for being black.