Antionette Chinonye Nwandu
Marin Theatre Company
“I got plans to get off this block.” … “How we get off this block?” … “Are we fixin’ to get off this block?” … “Let’s do this shit. Pass over.”
On a desolate, dark street where we see only a metal guard rail; a crumbling concrete curb with a few weeds poking through; and a lone, oft flickering streetlamp, two young men bicker and banter, jockey about and joke around, dance and dream, and continue to talk about leaving while seemingly being stuck on this very spot for eternity. When they arrived and if and when they will actually escape is unclear; but what becomes quickly clear is that in Pass Over, playwright Antionette Chinonye Nwandu has placed these two, twenty-something, black men in a surreal setting not unlike Samuel Beckett placed Vladamir and Estragon as they waited day-in, day-out for a never-arriving Godot. In this play that was the first last autumn to premiere post-COVID on Broadway, the lone streetlamp replaces Beckett’s leafless tree, a stale piece of pizza dough subs for a turnip; and the intention to “pass over into the promised land” is now the daily dream instead of the hope for an elusive visitor.
However, we soon see that the similarities with Beckett’s play quickly diminish in Nwandu’s Pass Over. No matter how surreal the play sometimes appears, the historical and current realities of what we hear and witness in the lives of these two, contemporary, black men far outweigh any fictional aspects that at times are strange, unearthly, and even bizarre.
Director Kevin R. Free and the playwright ensure that the two dudes in front of us immediately shock us a bit with their raw, expletive-infused street talk (especially their constant use of various forms of the “n-word”) while at the same time totally build a bond between us and them as they entertain us in ways similar to some of the great comic duos of the past (think Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, even Curly and Moe). The two roll and romp on the stage like two puppies, giving mischievous, teenage-boy-twists to each others’ nipples or holding one down in a neck lock until the other says, “Uncle.”
The two also constantly fall into patterns of conversation that it is clear have been repeated many times before. One will ask, “Want some weed?” with the other knowing there is none in his pocket; but the hope is so strong that the second once again falls for the joke and says, “Yeah” … only of course to find out there is none to be had. When the young-acting, jovial Kitsch asks the more serene and slightly older Moses once again to go through his “Promised Land Top 10,” we know this is a list that probably has been recited many times, including yet again items like “collard greens and pinto beans” and “drawer full of clean socks” but also items such as “my brother brought from the dead” and “you and me waking up in the Promised Land instead of just wishing.” And while the two nimbly bounce around looking like two sparring partners in the boxing ring with their fancy foot moves, they continue to punctuate their familiar but spontaneous-appearing routines with some form or another of ‘we gotta get off this block.’
But sometimes, “off this block” becomes “off the plantation.” Other times, Moses prophetically proclaims, “We’re going up to that River,” meaning the River Jordan (the illusion enhanced by occasional crashing waves that seem to be coming from the dark just beyond the street’s lone guardrail). The two muse dreamily about “no ghetto,” “no plantation,” and a place that is “gonna be sweet, so pure” … “like milk and honey.” If the scripted inserts are not hints enough, Nwandu wants us to know this scene is one of both the now and the past. The program cites the time as “the (future) present, but also 2021 CE, but also 1855 CE, but also 1440 BCE” and the setting as “the river’s edge, but also a ghetto street, but also a desert city built by slaves, and also the new world to come (worlds without ends). The play’s initial appearance of surreal has become an allegory, a parable, and today’s reality all magically and powerfully mashed together.
Eddie Ewell and LeRoy S. Graham III are stunning in their portrayals of Moses and Kitsch, respectively. Individually, each brings a host of eye-popping moves, glances, vocal calisthenics, and surprise tactics that uniquely define their characters. Together, however, they truly excel as a pair of friends whose brother-like caring and love for each other so clearly shows amidst all their sparring and street antics.
The “Every Man” nature of each strikes home when they give the latest recitation of what can probably be deemed to be an ever-increasing list of black, male friends and family members who have been violently killed: “Darnell,” “Fat Joey,” “Big Mike,” “J-Von,” “His brother,” and on and on. As they list the names and look eye-to-eye in near tears of both sadness and anger, the two actors are two men who could be any two of thousands of other black men in this country, just waiting for their names to be added.
In fact, from the beginning there are signs ominous that Moses and Kitsch are not alone and that they never know when trouble is coming their way. Intermittently, the lone streetlight flickers; and threatening noises pierce through the dark. Each time, Moses and Kitsch freeze with the looks of deer in headlights; or they fall to the ground, hands protecting their heads, and bodies panting in fright. “Keep thinkin’ they’re some po-pos,” one says as he gets up shakily. “Po-pos,” we will learn, is “police.”
When one rather preppy but bumbling white guy shows up, the first thing Kitsch asks is, “Did you come here to kill me and my friend?” Played by Adam A. Roy, the dandy arrives dressed in white suit and blue tie with a big picnic basket and red-checkered tablecloth. He peppers his proper, rather aristocratic English with “golly, gee, gosh,” and he proceeds to lay out a dinner meant supposedly for his mom for Moses and Kitsch – a meal of their favorite delicacies from fried chicken to hot dog to dim sung to (of course) collard greens and pinto beans. Moses is skeptical; Kitsch is delighted (and famished). Identified in the Program as “Mister,” the too-friendly, very talkative young man finally reveals his name to be something that once again is an insert by the playwright to remind us that the history of white/black relationships in this country is anything but equal. (Hint: Think of a word close to “mister” but is not.)
Adam A. Roy later appears once again unexpected, but this time in a role the Program identifies as “Ossifer.” A much armed, baton-swinging policeman (the Po-Po we have heard of previously) swaggers threateningly onto the scene. First he acts as if there to protect the two “from fellas on the loose around here;” but hardly a minute passes before he is calling them “stupid, lazy, violent thugs” and demanding hands behind heads. As he pokes and prods their shaking bodies for obviously no reason, we and they know the only reason is that they are black.
Adam A. Roy provides the third stellar performance of the evening, but one that is maddening to watch and one all too familiar in our current world of 2022. His “Ossifer” will appear a second time and will lead to a new ending that Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu has given this Broadway version of a play she has now rewritten and reproduced twice (once as a Spike Lee film). The combined talents of Scenic Designer Edward E. Haynes, Jr., Lighting Designer Grisel Torres, Sound Designer Christopher Sauceda, and Costume Designer Alice Ruiz join forces with the Director, the cast, and the playwright to produce a final ten minutes of hope and promise – hope and promise that movements like Black Lives Matter have brought to our world and the world of blacks in this country since the initial play was penned and premiered in 2017. The finale is uplifting, a visual and aural delight, and in fact, a Pass Over. Not everything is totally clear with what happens and does not happen; and I feel there will be likely more changes and clarifications by the playwright in the future. But for now, this West Coast, Post-Broadway premiere by Marin Theatre Company of Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over is near-perfect in every respect and is currently at the top of my list of “must-see” productions in the Bay Area.
Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”
Pass Over continues in extension through February 27, 2022 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Tickets are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office, 415-388-5208, open remotely Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m. and in the office 12 p.m. – intermission on performance days. Proof of full vaccination with I.D. is required as well as a KN95 or N95 mask to be worn at all times inside the theatre.