Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s one-act drama, Pass Over, Broadway’s first play in 18 months, is a bleak yet funny and poignant mash-up of Waiting for Godot and the Book of Exodus. Two poor young black men, mired in a hell-scape of deep-seated racism and gratuitous violence, dream of a better future. So many in their neighborhood have been killed that they can’t remember all of their names.
As the two friends Moses and Kitch, Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood reprise their easy chemistry and nuanced performances from Lincoln Center’s 2018 LCT3 production at the Claire Tow Theater.
The pair have only their imaginations to protect them under the harsh white glare of an oversize streetlamp on Wilson Chin’s bare-bones set. It’s as if they’re being watched, even when alone. They’re even hemmed in by the fourth wall of the predominantly white audience (at the preview I attended) at the August Wilson Theatre.
Under Danya Taymor’s taut direction, Moses and Kitch cope with the existential dread of their dead-end reality by playing a game they’ve devised in which they imagine “passing over” to a post-ghetto life free of poverty and daily killings by the “po-pos,” or police.
Their lists of what they call “Promised Land Top Ten” items range from basics like clean socks and hot meals, to luxuries like Champagne and caviar, to fantasies like world peace and the return of dead relatives. What they want most, however, is to “get off ‘dis block” while they’re still alive.
Whether and how they do that depends on their response to the arrival, in succession, of two outsiders, both played by an excellent Gabriel Ebert, also from the LCT3 production.
The first intruder, Mister, is a man with the veneer of white skin, white suit, and a privileged demeanor. His “gosh, golly, gee” refrain starkly contrasts with Moses and Kitch’s profanity and n-word-laden riffs, yet his kindly offer of food and company quickly betrays an underlying bias and tone-deaf naiveté.
Ebert later returns as Ossifer, a caricature of a racist white cop whose scrutiny Moses and Kitch try to elude by imitating Mister’s language and tone. This only works momentarily, however, before Ossifer reduces them to the street thugs he presumes them to be, based on their skin color.
These encounters leave the young men disillusioned and desperate, forcing them to enact a risky plan that might get them to a promised land where they’ll be safe and free, and their tormenters vanquished. Staged with a surrealistic set-piece that leaves us unsure whether their desired result is real or imagined, this final scene nonetheless gives them, and us, hope.
Vaxxine-verified and masked for protection from one ongoing societal scourge, Pass Over’s audience bears witness to a powerful and timely indictment of another, one that’s equally dangerous yet more deeply entrenched.