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Pass Over

Play set simultaneously on a ghetto street under a lamp post, a plantation, a desert city built by slaves, the river’s edge, and the new world to come.

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Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

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.”

Namir Smallwood, Gabriel Ebert and Jon Michael Hill in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

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

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (122 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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