Even before I learned that Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, the author of Pass Over, acknowledged that her play was inspired by Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot, with two characters standing under a lamp post eventually joined by a third, I immediately thought of the connection on my own, when I saw this new play at the August Wilson Theatre. Although I should rush to add this play had a previous incarnation, unseen by me, at Lincoln Center. This is a transfer of that production by director Danya Taymor but with a new ending.
The spartan set design by Wilson Chin features a large tin can, a tall streetlamp, a very large tire, a milk crate, and a high basketball net. The first two actors, Jon Michael Hill (as Moses) and Namir Smallwood (as Kitch) take shifting turns sitting on the large can and the milk crate. But when we initially meet them, they’re running rapidly in place. They’re also speaking what eventually becomes a tedious and redundant black vernacular, without seeming to have much to say to each other or to us, even as they traffic in racist clichés.
As indicated by the character named Moses, Pass Over is riddled with Biblical references. It’s 28 minutes into the play when they’re joined by Mister (although I kept hearing them call him “Master,” which under the circumstances, would have made more sense). He also removes an enormous amount of food from the straw basket he brings with him, which he was ostensibly taking to his mother, as he also sings, “What a Wonderful World.” Mister is played by Gabriel Ebert, who also plays “Ossifer,” an alcoholic’s way of pronouncing “Officer.”
Kitch appears to kill Moses with a rock, but Ossifer, a policeman, handcuffs him nonetheless (even as he handcuffs Kitch), and Moses indeed returns to life. Moses calls down the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and Ossifer starts bleeding all over his entire body. The most aggravating aspect of Pass Over is how baffling and confusing it is from beginning to end. Even the set design becomes confusing, as trees suddenly appear in the background, with leaves falling and all turns smokey. According to the script, this is a vision of “The Promised Land.” At the end, first Ossifer strips naked, before he wades through a pool, followed by Moses who also strips, and then Kitch, all heading to the forest on the other side. Is this another Biblical reference, since Adam was naked in paradise?
The TIME in the program is listed as “the (future) present, but also 2021 CE, and also 1855 CE, and also 1440 BCE;” the PLACE as “the river’s edge, and also a ghetto street, and also a plantation, and also a desert city built by slaves, (and also the new world to come ((worlds without end)).” But it all plays out in real time, making those program listings, like every other aspect of the drama, seem more than a little pretentious.
Pass Over (through October 10, 2021)
The Lincoln Center Theater Production
August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 888-985-9421 and http://www.seatgeek.com/pass-over-tickets
Running time: 110 minutes without an intermission