In Pass Over, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Broadway debut play, Nwandu has her eyes on the promised land.
Her protagonists, Moses and Kitch, two young Black men, are stuck on a run-down street corner, complete with overgrown grass, an old tire, a rusty trash can, and a flickering street lamp overhead. (Wilson Chin designed the spare, photorealistic set.)
For the majority of this taut, intermission-less remix of Waiting for Godot, Nwandu confines her protagonists to this one street—a metaphorical American cage of systemic racism and redlining, poverty and bigotry. Every day, Moses and Kitch pray that they can “pass ovuh” to a better place before cops murder them, a fate shared by too many people they know: Ed and Darnell; Fat Jay and Dumb Terry; Big Mike and Junior; Nick and Jayvon; C-Money and Julio. Their list of names is painfully long.
In order for Moses and Kitch to reach this promised land, Moses has to live up to his name and lead the way to freedom. Can he do it? Moses, played by Jon Michael Hill with level-headed solidity, has no clear answers, because there’s no guide of how to leave this street. Kitch (a magnetic Namir Smallwood) makes for a charismatic follower, a man eager to hype up his friend but unable to see his own way to freedom. So the two men fill their time by laughing and playing, flexing and flossing, scrounging for food and dreaming of the better lives they could have in the promised land.
Pass Over is a tonally tricky play—a sort of horror comedy. The first lines are a call and response between Moses and Kitch: “yo kill me now” / “bang bang”— a mocking clapback to death that Moses and Kitch repeatedly deploy to get through each day. Director Danya Taymor keeps the humor flowing nicely, directing both performances with heightened styles that draw on clowning—using pratfalls, synchronized movements, and very funny impressions of white people—to great effect. (Famed Beckett aficionado and clown Bill Irwin served as Pass Over’s movement consultant.)
Midway through the play, Mister (Gabriel Ebert), an exceedingly genteel white man, enters and upends Moses and Kitch’s routines. Armed with a picnic basket and “gosh golly gee”s to spare, Mister has gotten lost on his way to mother’s house. Mister’s unexpected presence immediately sets the two friends on edge. What, exactly, is Mister doing on this street? Why does he have so much delicious food? What designs does this strange white man have on the two of them?
At its most effective, Pass Over’s humor allows Taymor to set off devastating booby traps, driving home Moses and Kitch’s powerlessness. After Mister shares his food, Taymor stages an inspired bit: Moses and Kitch sing along while Mister performs “What a Wonderful World” on a ukulele. It’s an improbable comedic showstopper—a moment of genuine camaraderie between a suspicious intruder and two tramps, employing the gleeful stereotype of a white man rocking out on a ukulele.
Immediately following “What a Wonderful World” is one of Pass Over’s most disturbing exchanges, as Mister’s identity comes to the fore:
my name is master
No one is laughing after that.
While that jarring exchange is quite effective, the production’s other shifts into racial terror are less successful. Nwandu’s script calls for sudden moments of silence and stillness where Moses and Kitch flinch, interrupting their jesting. Taymor stages these with stark sidelights and a low bass hum playing in the background, as the two men strike hands-up poses. These moments land as post-traumatic memories—trauma that can interrupt daily life at a whim, preventing Moses and Kitch from settling into their fantasies of the promised land—but the sound design feels too polite to make the moments feel genuinely unsettling.
In interviews, Nwandu has been explicit about needing a more hopeful ending for the Broadway version of Pass Over than in past versions of the play. Here, unlike in previous productions, she is getting these men to the promised land.
It’s a tough task she’s set out for herself, and one that, to my mind, she only partially succeeds at.
[Spoilers ahead. We recommend continuing only after you have seen the play.]
Unable to see a path to salvation, Moses and Kitch decide to take their own lives before Ossifer (a terrorizing cop also played by Ebert) can. Kitch smashes Moses’ head with a rock, but before Kitch can take his own life, Ossifer returns, determined to murder Kitch once and for all.
And then, suddenly Moses rises, calling down plagues from the heavens that purge bile from Ossifer’s mouth, render his gun powerless, and conjure up the promised land—a lush jungle with a cleansing river running through it.
Here, Nwandu runs into a narrative dead-end. The world she’s set up doesn’t have a viable escape for Moses and Kitch, so she uses a deus ex machina as a way out of the cesspool of American racism—functionally, waving a magic wand to rain down antiracist plagues. As a metaphor, these plagues lack the clarity that her carceral street corner has. Divine justice isn’t a practicable approach to collective liberation. So, this play doesn’t help show us how we get free, exactly.
Nwandu’s vision of freedom, though, is filled with grace. After the plagues abate, Moses welcomes the newly purified Christopher—the man who was Ossifer—into paradise and follows shortly thereafter. All it takes to enter this promised land is to leave your clothing behind and wade into the water. Anyone can join.
Pass Over dreams up a world washed clean of American horror, open to all who are willing to recognize the full humanity of the people around them. It’s a beautiful place, this promised land. And, for a moment, you can almost taste it.