The standing ovation, the whooping and cheering happened before a word was spoken.
Pass Over opened tonight, August 22 (until Oct 10 at the August Wilson Theatre), the first release on a pent-up Broadway itching to make up for a lost year and a half.
Here we all were in what looked like a full house, and it felt momentous and strange. It had been so long, and it was so good to be back, but the pandemic is ongoing. Whether theatre can fully return in the social and scientific hinterland we find ourselves is still an open question, and one that will be tested by theater makers and appreciators in real time in the coming months.
If you are ready to return to Broadway, then it’s pretty much the same as before, except: be ready to show proof of vaccination, proof of identity, and then your tickets. Be ready to wear a mask for the duration of the performance, for now at least. Once inside, there is no social distancing. You are sitting in your seats as close to your neighbor as you were before, just masked. And one guesses the delighted whoops at Thursday evening’s performance of Pass Over—just to be there, to see a play, to be together, to be back on Broadway for the first time since March last year—will be echoed in more performances as actors and audiences return.
Pass Over feels an oddly prescient affirmation of life, even when racism, police brutality, and white supremacy are omnipresent to snuff both out. The murder of George Floyd and all that flowed from it—including demands for change on Broadway, both in terms of work produced and who was producing that work—is a newly endowed context for the play, and one that has informed a rewritten ending by playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu.
Given the historical moment we are in, and the questions being asked of society as a whole, there is no better play to herald the return of Broadway in a season featuring a number of Black-produced and themed productions.
Originally produced and presented by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Company (a production that was filmed by Spike Lee), this reporter first saw Pass Over at Lincoln Center in 2018, directed now as it was then with daring and precision by Danya Taymor. It stunned the then-mostly white audience into silence; its ending featured one of the main characters dying. Without giving its genuinely surprising, fresh ending away, the new Pass Over concludes with a set of different beats—and the play has grown from 85 minutes to 95 minutes (no intermission) to take us to its new final tableau.
Pass Over seems initially to be about two close friends, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood). These two young black men in their early 20s are hanging on a street that is both their patch, but also their prison. They seem to be Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for a shifting Godot. They want to stay there, and they want something else from life. They’re not sure what. They are scared, but not going anywhere just yet. They call each other the n-word freely, with affection and not-affection.
We laugh with them, and root for Moses (a nervy, suspicious ball of energy) and Kitch (more languid and softer-edged) to find a safe and happy way out of whatever their binds are. They are funny, tough, and vulnerable. Though much of the play is about feeling trapped, there is a lot of dance and movement in Pass Over, a defiant and playful ownership of the space around the characters. Hill and Smallwood inhabit their characters’ friendship so easily we very quickly want to spend time with them.
Wilson Chin’s set, Marcus Doshi’s lighting, and Justin Ellington’s sound design are as starkly in concert with each other as they were at Lincoln Center; a huge streetlamp is almost a third character. Bright white light filtering from the sides of the theater become more diffuse when a police car approaches. The men hold their clenched stomachs in frozen fear to see if they are still alive every time one drives by.
But we are not just in a modern city. The program tells us that as well as a present-day street, we should also imagine we are on a plantation in 1855, and in Egypt, a civilization built by slaves, in 1440 BCE. We are also now at a river’s edge, “and also the new world to come ((worlds without end)).”
The program features three significant quotes: one from the Book of Exodus 12:13: “…and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you…”; another from “Deep River,” a Negro spiritual: “Oh, don’t you want to go, to that gospel feast/That promised land, that land where all is peace?”; and another by James Baldwin: “…it has always seemed much easier to murder than to change.”
In part because of its new, otherworldly ending, Pass Over now very overtly feels like a mixture of nightmare, dream, and reality centered around various interpretations of its title. At its most terrifying, “passing over” presents itself as a shared death pact borne of desperation, at its most positive it is escape and new life. Black lives are under attack in Pass Over, as are the life-saving acts of Black power and self-determination.
When the white character of Mister (Gabriel Ebert) appears, he seems not just out of place but of another time and context; his excuse that he is on his way to his grandmother’s house rings hollow. Suddenly we are in Little Red Riding Hood, confronted by a Big Bad Wolf in flannels saying “Gee golly gosh.” Ebert gets lots of laughs, because he seems such a high-society, very white fish out of water—and because he has a picnic hamper with an unseeable bottom that belches forth food and drink—but then we hear his utterances of racism, his sneer, and his aggressively tone-deaf interrogations around the n-word, and his presence becomes darker.
Later, the two friends cannot agree if his appearance was shared dream or shared reality. Ebert next appears as a white police officer to antagonize and brutalize the young men. Both of these figures are there right in front of us, invading space and causing hurt, and they are at the same time spectral and symbolic. Pass Over’s inhabitation of a dream-space, a place beyond reality, feels more comprehensive on its new, bigger stage.
Nwandu herself has said that the play is about “two young Black men deeply disenfranchised by society and community.” The original inspiration for her writing it was the anger she felt over the death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman for his death. In her teaching career, she has come into contact with you young Black and brown men who are victims of stop-and-frisk and “constantly in peril of getting caught up in different systems.”
The play was an effort on her part to “keep engaged in the American experiment as a citizen of this country who is feeling so angry and betrayed by what the country is.” Pass Over is intended to ask of its audiences, she said: “Are we a nation that values young Black men's lives? Who are we as a nation?”
That was in 2018. This reporter will not reveal the new, visually stunning ending of Pass Over, written in the wake of Floyd’s killing, and the grief, anger, activism, and passionate calls for change that followed it. But narratively speaking, this new ending offers an expanded and more positive answer than the play’s previous iteration. A gutturally voiced loss of life has been replaced by a very funny, heartfelt, and literal affirmation of Black power—and alongside it a possibility of fresh understanding and co-existence, if not white redemption.
Or so you think until the last seconds of the play, when Nwandu and Taymor ruthlessly remove that feelgood rug out from under the audience to rightly stun it into horrified silence again.
The fierce cheering and standing ovation that greeted Hill, Smallwood, and Ebert at the end was not only its own affirmation of Pass Over’s layered engagement with its many questions, but also an expression of delight that theater had returned as a forum to present them so powerfully.