Review: Waiting for Po-Po in a Searing ‘Pass Over’

Posted June 19, 2018 12:14 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The game is called “promised land top ten,” and you get the feeling that Moses and Kitch, the main characters in Antoinette Nwandu’s blazingly theatrical play “Pass Over,” have been at it forever, whiling away time and tamping down dread.

As one calls out the count, the other announces things he’d like to see should he be lucky enough to “pass over” into paradise. Soft sheets, a girlfriend and brown bunnies — the characters are barely past puberty — mix uncomfortably with “my brotha here with me back from the dead.” Footwear figures prominently on both lists: for Moses, a drawer full of clean socks; for Kitch, a pair of Air Jordans, “not thrift store new” but “new new.”

If these items are a nod to the footsore vagrants of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” they aren’t the only ones. In Nwandu’s play, which opened on Monday at the Claire Tow Theater, Moses and Kitch are a dispossessed team like Vladimir and Estragon, stuck in an existential cycle of hopelessness they try to master with gallows humor and jags of deluded optimism.

But however neatly they track with Beckett’s tramps, Moses and Kitch are up against something more specifically threatening than the baseline tragedy of being alive. They are, after all, poor young black men in a modern American city a lot like Chicago. Another of their pastimes is a call-and-response ritual in which “yo, kill me now” is a warm greeting, always answered with a reassuring “bang bang.” That’s no metaphor; death, hovering so closely around them, may be the only thing they can confidently expect to achieve. So many of their friends have achieved it already, at the hands of the police, that they give up trying to name them after about two dozen. What’s more, they frequently rehearse their own demise, or at least their close calls, suddenly falling to the ground amid their games and rituals at the real or imagined approach of the officers they call “po-pos.”

Despite its grim relevance, “Pass Over” creates a vivid world of injustice while riffing on earlier ones. Moses and Kitch specifically recall not only Beckett’s vaudevillians, but also enslaved African-Americans working a plantation and even biblical Israelites escaping from Egypt. At any moment, elements of these antecedents may erupt through the skin of the modern tale, as if to say that the current crisis for young black men is a tragedy too big for one era to encompass.

This is daring dramaturgy, requiring the utmost in tonal control to keep it from tipping into righteous bathos. Danya Taymor’s thrillingly tense LCT3 production mostly succeeds.

Technically, it is ideal; Wilson Chin’s set, striking in itself, also hints at the historical connections with its grimy streetlamp standing in for Beckett’s sad tree and its slice of sidewalk surrounded by a desert of sand. The sound design (by Justin Ellington), costume design (by Sarafina Bush) and especially the lighting design (by Marcus Doshi) all contribute at a similarly high level to the feeling of theatrical entrapment.

Within this prison, Nwandu has been careful to particularize and humanize her main characters so that the tragedy is not just theoretical or surreal. Moses (Jon Michael Hill) is the alpha male, stoical and sophisticated. (He knows, as Kitch does not, that caviar is fish eggs.) Kitch (Namir Smallwood) is more dependent and deferential, apter to sulk but also more watchful. Both actors are excellent, building complex characters from the rough urban patois that Nwandu provides without getting purple, even while approaching a kind of street poetry.

It’s hard to say, though, what Nwandu intends in her shaping of the two white characters, both played by Gabriel Ebert. One, called Mister, wanders into the scene like Little Red Riding Hood carrying a magic picnic basket; he’s a dandy in a white suit, saddle shoes and argyle socks. A corollary to Beckett’s pompous Pozzo, he offers food and “salutations” and says “gosh golly gee” but soon reveals an angrier and even sinister aspect.

Ebert’s other role — a police officer whose quasi-sexual sadism is barely more than a cliché — departs from the “Godot” template, and from Nwandu’s general interest in examining real humans despite the surreal setting. She may be asking us to consider whether police violence against young black men should be humanized at all, or whether, at least as seen by Moses and Kitch, it can be. To them, “Ossifer,” as he’s called, isn’t much more than a uniform and a gun: an archetype of domination, a bringer of death. I therefore do not argue, as the Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss did after the play’s world premiere at the Steppenwolf Theater last year, that “Pass Over” errs in focusing on the deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers when “much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself.” It seems to me that black-on-black violence is simply not this play’s subject, though Nwandu does allude to it, movingly and without preaching.

My quibble is from the other direction: that the impact of the play’s argument about police violence against young black men, whatever its statistical prevalence, is undercut rather than enhanced by its cartoonish conception of Ossifer.

Perhaps this is something Nwandu will continue to fine-tune; she has already made significant improvements since the Steppenwolf production. (A film of that production, by Spike Lee, is now available from Amazon Studios.) Those changes are all in the direction of greater subtlety, especially at the end. There, a brief Trumpian coda (“This country’s ours again. Isn’t it great?”) has been replaced with a much more powerful indictment of perplexity and helplessness as excuses for inaction.

But even now, “Pass Over” resonates as a powerful tragedy because it does not depend on the believability of its white characters, just its black ones. What the play understands (as Beckett did) is that all endangered people are tragedies in the making. The only thing necessary to dramatize this — the only thing but also the hardest thing! — is the creation of characters whose death would be a loss. Moses and Kitch, and the many others they represent, are more than sufficient.

Production Notes:

‘Pass Over’

Through July 15 at Lincoln Center - Claire Tow Theater, Manhattan; 800-432-7250, lct.org. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.

By Antoinette Nwandu, directed by Danya Taymor; sets by Wilson Chin; costumes by Sarafina Bush; lighting by Marcus Doshi; sound by Justin Ellington; stage manager, Evangeline Rose Whitlock; fight director, J. David Brimmer; general manager, Jessica Niebanck; production manager, Paul Smithyman. Presented by Lincoln Center Theater; André Bishop, producing artistic director; Adam Siegel, managing director; Hattie K. Jutagir, executive director of development & planning; Evan Cabnet, artistic director, LCT3.

Cast: Gabriel Ebert (Mister/Ossifer) Jon Michael Hill (Moses), Namir Smallwood (Kitch)