Bless me, reader, for I have slacked. It’s been 18 months since my last blog. I was too depressed and demoralized, sometimes too downright heartbroken actually, to muster the enthusiasm to write. My penance is . . . to write something.
This space was conceived as a theater blog, and yes (in case you’re wondering) I saw a fair amount of the online theater that appeared during the pandemic. Some of it was good. Not enough. I won’t talk any of it down. All I’ll say is that it took seeing an extraordinary play live again—that’s live, rhymes with thrive—in real time, in the same room with a bunch of breathing, sweating, farting, cellphone-checking, pants-wearing—and vaccinated!—other people, to make me remember why the hell I used to do this.
Like thousands of other people, I saw Pass Over three years ago. It came to Lincoln Center from Chicago, directed by Danya Taymor, and was then released as a film made by Spike Lee from the original 2017 Steppenwolf production (available on Amazon Prime). I really liked it then. But I was nevertheless totally unprepared for how moved I’d be at seeing it as the first twitching of life on post-Covid Broadway. Several of the big noisy musicals are already performing again, but at least for this emerging cave-dweller, it felt necessary and important to start with something emphatically poetic, unfrivolous, and recognizably attuned to the real-world upheavals we’ve all been living through.
Pass Over is Antoinette Nwandu’s “conversation” with Waiting for Godot, as she has put it in various interviews. Two young Black men, Moses and Kitch, hang out on a street corner passing time with horseplay, word games and shared dreams of reaching the “promised land” if they could just “git up off dis block” and keep from being killed by “the po-pos.” On successive days, they’re visited by white characters—a white-suited, straw-hatted, faux-friendly man-boy named Mister and a shamelessly abusive cop named Ossifer (both played by the same actor, Gabriel Ebert)—who come and go freely. The biblical implications of Moses’s name grow more insistent as the play goes on.
The biggest treats in it for me are the searing performances of Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood, whose banter and byplay as Moses and Kitch have the physical precision and crack timing of tight comic duos like Laurel and Hardy, or probably more to the point, cartoon duos like Boris & Nathasha or Daffy & Bugs. As touching and infectious as their intimate emotional connection is, the play isn’t completely realistic, so their emotion has to emerge from their repertoire of private routines involving shifty hats, moody glances, cocky struts, and much more. Just as important, they’re both superb at turning the rhythms and cadences of Nwandu’s language (a sort of clipped street talk in verse) into sensuous verbal music. The steady breeze of that music is a major propulsive force in the play that seems to drive the pair toward self-respect and survival. Mister and Ossifer, to all appearances, can’t even perceive, let alone enjoy it.
There have been many explicit playwriting responses to Godot over the years. To me most have been woefully unsatisfying. Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is probably the most famous and I always found it overlong, mired in intellectual display, and infatuated with its own profundity. Miodrag Bulatovic’s Godot Came typifies another occasional approach: the topical sequel play. A parody of the repressive political machinery of 1960s Yugoslavia, this work irritates with bottomless cynicism, evoking the celebrated openness of Beckett’s nonspecific landscape only to mock and constrict it with overlaid topicality.
Remarkably, Pass Over has none of these problems. The whole work feels original, organic, vital, and necessary. It can drop all the topical references to contemporary America it wants—to Mormon missionaries, Domino Pizza, Air Jordans, Whitney Houston, what have you—and still move us to tears with its suggestion that the misery in it might just be as immutable and abiding as the frustration, failure and decay in store for all of us.
Nwandu has said that her conversation with Beckett about Godot began years ago with wondering where Black American experience intersects with the play. Didi and Gogo, she told Vulture, represented “the height of white western anxiety—the fact that these two men might be abandoned by God. It’s a terrible, existential feeling. But I looked up at them, and I was like, Wait, but they still get to be old. If they were Black, these characters wouldn’t be old.” The consequence was that her “tramp” characters would not only be abandoned, betrayed and bored like Beckett’s but also threatened by sudden, violent death at all times—death from “po-pos,” gangs, drug dealers, it doesn’t matter. They’re always precarious and exposed on their forlorn city block.
Through all of Pass Over’s developmental phases, this basic circumstance hasn’t changed. Interestingly enough, though, Nwandu has substantially rewritten the text for each of its three major productions, each time tweaking the plot’s Black/white confrontation, particularly the ending, in different ways. The Steppenwolf version was the most polemical, a deliberately MAGA-defying cold-blooded murder of uppity Moses by Mister, essentially a lynching. The LCT3 version was a shade lighter, with Mister expressing helpless regret for the unceasing murders of Black men in the world. Now the Broadway version is brighter again, offering a relatively upbeat coup de théâtre that suggests paradisiacal redemption after trauma.
Nwandu says that in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and all the other wrenching events of 2020-21, she wanted a healing ending that “will help bring joy and beauty and laughter and a little bit of grace and a little bit of Afrofuturism to any audience member, regardless of their race.”
I can’t say much more on this without dropping spoilers. But I do want to observe how telling it is that none of the three endings affect the play’s core power. That power, interestingly enough, doesn’t depend on the ending because its generative source is the play’s disturbing basic conception, which tacitly compares Didi and Gogo’s incurable condition of waiting to the presumably incurable condition of structural racism behind Moses and Kitch’s suffering. Nwandu can suggest as many different liberatory releases from those conditions as she likes in her different endings. The foundation of her beautiful tragicomic drama will still be painfully tragic.
Photos: Joan Marcus
By Antoinette Nwandu
Directed by Danya Taymor
August Wilson Theatre