“Please remove your shoes before entering.” You step in barefoot; Soho Rep has been transformed into a cross between a dojo and a liminal space: nothing and everything. A few wooden boxes cluster atop a circular platform, framed by beams and columns that resemble the structure of a temple, but abstract enough to represent the concept of a structure, any structure. The idea of respecting the rules and culture of a new space is immediately established through this simple act.
Christopher Chen’s Passage is an enigmatic play, but the plot is made crystal clear by the playwright’s great care with every word, as well as Saheem Ali’s brilliant direction. At its core, Passage addresses the political and cultural conflicts between the people of two fictional countries, X and Y. Citizens of Y have, over the years, exerted control over X, to the point where X’s native citizens have become an oppressed population. The big abstract ideas of the play are delivered in a specific and nuanced story with sympathetic, albeit flawed characters.
It starts like a ritual: the actors introduce themselves, before spotlights isolate Q’s point of view. She imagines a country she’s never been to as she migrates to X. “Borders are manmade, so they might as well be the same country,” Q (Andrea Abello) says as she thinks of a country that borders X; from then on, the story challenges the audiences to imagine what’s not readily clear. Q enters a new realm, along with the rest of us, with uncertainty.
We are then introduced to the conflict between the two peoples through a debate between a few citizens of X: Is it possible to be friends with a citizen of Y? Should people of a dominant culture take on more “burden of empathy”? And can true friendship ever be established without equality? The play asks difficult questions that call to mind colonialism in Asian countries, in South Africa, as well as the different levels of privilege people enjoy in America even when they share the level of being “native” to the land. It makes sense when we discover that the piece is partially inspired by A Passage to India by E. M. Forster.
The play expands like an organ and stretches out like branches, following the paths of interconnected characters. We follow Q’s journey and meet her fiancé, R (Yair Ben-Dor), who lives with ease as the émigré with all the benefits; Q’s expectations about the life she’s envisioned for herself begin to crumble. We meet G (Lizan Mitchell), a local professor and trusted spiritual leader in Y’s religion. We meet Doctor B (K.K. Moggie), X’s most prominent surgeon, who starts a friendship with F (Linda Powell), a teacher from Y who finds herself an outsider amongst her own nationals. During a particularly brilliant scene, G and S (Howard W. Overshown) eavesdrop on and break down the friendly, almost mundane conversation between B and F. The two observers, both from Y, note the hesitation in B’s willingness to open up to F. Are they becoming friends, or simply friendly? I think about living in this country as a foreigner, about the feeling of constantly holding back, not being able to completely trust friendships with others who haven’t experienced displacement and the fear of rejection that comes naturally to immigrants or to those who are considered lesser in some ways.
The characters’ individual journeys come together in a climactic act of violence when B, F, and R visit Y’s renowned caves. And the audience, along with every single character, is challenged to make their own judgments, which cannot be always objective. The play also asks each audience member to examine our different levels of privilege. “Each of you is seeing it differently depending on your experience,” G, as the constant commentator on the show, tells the audience.
During the play, actors who are not in the scene remain visible on two sides of the stage, and the audience completes the other two, making the performance space a theatre in the round. And because of the neutral aesthetics, the space becomes forum-like.
It’s important to point out not only that Passage has one of the most diverse casts I’ve ever witnessed, consisting of entirely people of color, but that the nature of the play dictates that any future productions adhere to this as well. In telling this highly symbolic tale that addresses issues of colonialism and oppression, a white cast on either side would strip the production of its neutrality. The cast is wildly talented. Howard Overshown, in particular, makes a lasting impression. The astonishingly versatile actor switches between five different characters without missing a beat–and those five characters include a mosquito and a gecko, in some of my favorite scenes, where F communicates with a mosquito, and later on a gecko on her wall. Those moments are beautiful and silly at the same time. They reflect the kindness and curiosity of her character, but also one of the most important messages the play delivers. “The jungle does not understand walls,” says the mosquito as he stops on a coatrack, which isn’t all that different to him from a tree branch.
The oppositions in the play are easy to track, thanks to the simplicity of the country names (X and Y could be any nation in the world), but also the deliberate color schemes of the costumes by Toni-Leslie James. Y’ers are identified by their maroon clothes, while X’ers wear blues and greys, as well as a more eastern style.
The props (Ryan Courtney) and set (Arnulfo Maldonado) also add to the stylized nature. They are vigilantly devoid of cultural references: the bottles of drinks are brand-less; even the playing cards are blank beige pieces. Identical wooden boxes become everything the play needs: tables, bars, etc., and almost all the props are hidden within those boxes. The production is pristine in its execution, but also sustains the playfulness of those seemingly simple theatrical tricks. Additionally, the texture of the sound design (Mikaal Sulaiman) adds to the atmosphere significantly, but without being too literal.
.This is a play about many different things, a play that needs to be absorbed with care, as well as attention. But I think above all, it’s about the concept of differences; it’s a negotiation between identities and what it means to be human, when we negotiate the additional factors of nationalities and history. The play asks us how those things affect our willingness to feel empathy.
We follow G into the cave in the end, deeper and deeper. It’s a moment of reflection, as we are asked to imagine, to picture what’s possible.
“Stay with me even if I ran out of words,” she says.
And so this story will go on, because it’s the only story.