To say that Pass Over by New York playwright Antoinette Nwandu is unsettling is an understatement. Her searing look at race relations in America is not for the faint of heart, carrying, as it does, a universal resonance for audiences no matter where they live. Her focus is the lives of young Black men, whether it be the hopeless immobility of their existence, or the real danger of being killed by the police. It is not a pretty picture.
Nwandu was influenced by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the Book of Exodus in the bible. Thus we have Moses (Kaleb Alexander) and Kitch (Mazin Elsadig) hanging out beneath a lamppost (rather than Beckett’s tree) on a ghetto street going nowhere, with Moses promising to get them out of there somehow. Like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, the men express their hopes and dreams as they randomly banter with each other and play word games. One of their favourite games is “Promised Land Top Ten” where they rhyme off things they want to find in paradise.
Into this bleak existence stumbles a genial White man (Alex McCooeye), spouting his gosh, golly, gees, carrying a picnic basket full of food, and looking as innocent as Little Red Riding Hood. He has become lost going to the home of his ailing mother. When the man offers food to the starving Moses and Kitch, the revealing of the basket’s feast of delights is one of the genuinely funny moments in the play. The young men call the White man Mister, but when he corrects the name to Master, (that being his family name), that’s when we know that Little Red Riding Hood is really the Wolf. McCooeye also plays the role of Ossifer, a brutal, violent bully of a policemen who is determined to keep Moses and Kitch in their place. Having one actor play both roles is Nwandu saying that they are both sides of the same White penny. Their encounters with Moses and Kitch mirror Pozzo and Lucky in the Beckett play, but while the impact of the latter two on Didi and Gogo is philosophical, in Pass Over terrible things happen.
Nwandu’s language is poetic and rhythmic, and her use of repetition is absolutely in keeping with the play’s premise of existential stagnation. Apparently, the N-word appears 260 times in the text, and is the baseline for how Moses and Kitch refer to each other. It is, in truth, the verbal bond of their friendship. An amusing moment occurs when they decide to stop using the N-word, because if the po-pos (police) don’t hear it, they won’t know it’s them. At another not very amusing moment, Mister implies there is a double standard. If they can use the N-word, why can’t he? At certain jarring moments in the play, the glaring headlights of a car snap on, and the two men drop to their knees with their hands in the air. It is a terrifying automatic reflex, because the men have suffered a grievous personal loss. Moses’ brother was killed by the police. From the moment Mister and Ossifer arrive, the tension begins to mount, and is relentless. Not surprisingly, in the end, the helpless, aimless existence that Moses and Kitch are living, lead them to resort to desperate measures. This play could never have a happy ending.
The acting is wonderful. Alexander and Elsadig give powerful, performances, telegraphing the inner despair that lies beneath the seemingly light-hearted camaraderie. Moses is more reticent while Kitch is more exuberant. Together they make a winning combination. McCooeye is excellent as the courtly Mister and vicious Ossifer. Director Philip Akin, who is stepping down as Obsidian’s artistic director, has rendered a superb final season offering with Pass Over. He does a clean, efficient job in moving his characters through a narrow space, while ensuring that the pacing keeps up the energy. His actors are always vital and in the moment.
Julia Kim’s set is absolutely eye-catching. She has crafted a broad sweep of barren concrete that not only conjures up an empty street, but one that gives the illusion of going nowhere. Miquelon Rodriquez’s clever sound design is a frightening combination of traffic noises and startling sound effects, while Chris Malkowski has lit the stage with appropriate gloom mixed with special moments of intense colour.
For Moses and Kitch, pass over means getting out of their present lives into a better existence. Pass over could also be a reference to the angel of death in Exodus passing over the Jewish homes to save their sons. In Nwandu’s Pass Over, the title is cruel and ironic because nobody is going to save Moses and Kitch.
Obsidian Theatre, Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, directed by Philip Akin, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Oct. 22 to Nov. 10, 2019.