Right now: A street corner. 1855: A plantation. But also the 13th century BCE, Egypt, a city built by slaves. This is the journey – historical and psychological – that buddies, brothers from another mother Moses and Kitch take in “Pass Over,” which opened this past week at Studio Theatre, and is now, most unfortunately, closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This searing and visceral meditation on America’s original sin, slavery, is an uncompromising commentary on racism, freedom, hope and despair by New York-based playwright Antoinette Nwandu. It’s as prophetic and as compelling as a Shakespearean tragedy and as current as the headlines. “Pass Over” reminds us of the power of live performance. If Studio Theatre cannot return this work to its stage — where it belongs so many more can see it — Amazon Prime has a film version of the 2017 Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s “Pass Over” production, directed by no less than Spike Lee.
This tour de force drama captures viewers with its uninhibited language embossed with the hardened slang and profanities of street corner thugs and hangers on. Get used to hearing the N-word, affectionately used between friends and as a racial epithet. It’s an integral part of the brotherly banter spoken on the streets between Moses and Kitch. “Pass Over” draws inspiration from both the story of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and playwright Samuel Beckett’s influential 1953 existential drama “Waiting for Godot,” that wrestles down religion and the cult of individualism.
Raised in a conservative Christian home in Los Angeles, Nwandu said in an interview, “I’ve had a working knowledge of the exodus story for as long as I can remember.”
At the Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle Church of Los Angeles, she attended Passover-like seders run by church members who, she noted, had connections with Jews for Jesus-like organizations. Reflecting on her early introduction to Passover, Nwandu has said, “When you compare contemporary young black men on a street corner to young slaves to young Israelites, what essential truths can we distill from all of these different historical moments?”
Nwandu notes the profound hold the exodus and concept of the promised land have had on the African American community: “The language of the biblical exodus is so deeply embedded in the Civil Rights movement and, before that, in the language of runaway enslaved people [where] the idea of the North was the promised land.” And yet, she continues, “It feels like every time black American people declare for themselves what the promised land is, the United States has a way of changing the game or raising the bar and saying, ‘No.’”
This dichotomy rests at the root of “Pass Over.” In fact, the very title, as it is used by Moses in the play is a verb, suggesting that leaving their relentless street life for a promised land is active, not passive, the act itself is “passing over.”
Nwandu’s brilliant intertwining of the Exodus story and “Waiting for Godot” unapologetically reflects the multi-generational repercussions of America’s slave history and institutional racism, which continue to leave a stain on the nation and its people.
In this Passover season, as Jews prepare to recall, recreate and reflect on their period of enslavement in Egypt, Nwandu’s “Pass Over” presents a fresh retelling that lays bare the harrowing effects of African-American enslavement that continue in the 21st century. Unknowingly, Nwandu has written an inherently Jewish work — a contemporary midrash on Passover and its elemental themes of slavery, freedom and historical memory reenacted in ways that resonate soundly in the era of Black Lives Matter.
Studio’s production packs near equal power to the Steppenwolf’s production. Local director, playwright and actor Psalmayene 24 draws strong performances from Christopher Lovell (Moses), Jalen Jamar Gilbert (Kitch) and Cary Donaldson (cast in the dual role of Mister and Ossifer). Debra Booth’s set is a floating island of dirty concrete sidewalk beneath a street lamp on a nondescript urban corner —recalling the spot where Estragon and Vladimir sat in “Godot.” Moses and Kitch, like forbears Didi and Gogo, pass the time as night blends into day, and day back into night.
The two friends spar and tussle, playing the dozens on each other until one has to cry uncle. Moses ruminates on “getting up off this block” and reaching a promised land that Kitch paints as the high life — Kristal and caviar, pretty girls and fast cars. Sound designer Megumi Katayama’s aural cityscape of traffic, sirens and distant gunshots, contributes to the dream-killing anxiety these two buddies experience. Literary allusions to the Passover story, like Kitch’s prophetic declaration that “the popo [police] be the angel of death himself” or when Moses sings a verse of the spiritual “Let My People Go,” feel unsurprisingly Jewish.
When an unexpected visitor appears, the balance shifts. Mister clad in pale crisp khaki and a straw hat looks like he just stepped off a plantation. The sycophantic politeness Mister exhibits, prefaced with archaic “gosh, golly gee” exclamations, carries sinister undertones. It’s not hard to see his white privilege show. Then when the buddies flinch at sounds of gunfire, Misters exclaims, “Fellows, if I were in your shoes I would be terrified!” and suggests they call the police. Later, Donaldson returns to the stage, the white man in a new guise — full police gear — as Ossifer. Here Nwandu shows the raw cruelty of police brutality and the abject fear and PTSD that results.
Moses’ allusion to pass over shifts. The tragic ending alludes to the many tragic losses in recent years of young black men at the hands of brutal and violent police officers and, too, to the loss of Moses’ and Kitch’s dream of a promised land, beyond their hopeless block. Beyond strong language, racist epithets and gunshots, simulated heightened violence could be trigger warnings for some, but they serve Nwandu’s purpose: “I’m here to be witness to truth.”