When Antoinette Chinonye Nwandus Pass over First premiered in 2017 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf (where Spike Lee filmed it) and later ran at the Claire Tow Theater in Lincoln Center in 2018, America was a different place. We had yet to go through a life-changing pandemic, and white people had yet to realize that what blacks had been saying for generations about the prevalence of police violence in colored communities was actually true.
This second edition remains a major theme in Pass over: The character of Ossifer (threateningly played by the brilliant Gabriel Ebert) is a manifestation of the brutal, racist police behavior that we have all now witnessed. But while the first and second versions of Nwandu’s play had endings that were tragic results of this type of behavior, in the new production of the play at the August Wilson Theater on Broadway, the tone and substance of the ending are markedly different.
Nwandu transformed her play from a disturbing tragedy into an unsettling but hopeful tragicomedy. It’s still a brilliant modern masterpiece that both hits Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the biblical Exodus story, but this new production, re-directed by Danya Taymor and starring the stellar cast of Lincoln Center, moves away from the deadly climaxes of the first and second productions and dissolves with images of hope and reconciliation. After America witnessed police murders of blacks, the play no longer needs to show the audience that the violence is happening; now it offers the option of that change can happen.
Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood (both give virtuoso performances) repeat their off-Broadway roles as Moses and Chin’s dark, ominous sentence suggests the Beckettian ancestry of the piece). The threat posed by the Po-Po (the police) always keeps the couple on high alert. “You’re killing me now!” cries Moses as he awakens from a troubled night. “Bang Bang,” Kitch replies. And so begins another day for the two of them who spend their hours joking and dreaming of finding a promised land where food is plentiful, material wealth is easy and the cops are nowhere to be found.
Mister, a white man (Ebert again) in a light suit, elegantly dressed, with a baseball cap and white, shiny Nike high tops (costume design by Sarafina Busch) slips into her street lamp world. Mister claims he got lost on the way to his mother’s house, but since he’s nearby, he offers to share the cornucopia of his picnic basket. Moses suspects that something is wrong with this white man, whose gee-gollies and trivialities seem suspicious, but Kitch is greedy for food and quickly becomes nice with this messenger. Mister’s super-polite facade breaks open when, in a provocative discussion about the N-word, he reveals that his real name is Master and exclaims: “Everything is mine!” – including this word.
Ossifer agrees, as we later hear him casually uttering the word as he subjects the men to humiliating pranks of a violent and vaguely sexual nature. Sound designer Justin Ellington and lighting designer Marcus Doshi give these scenes a terrifying feeling: a rumbling bass note ripples through the air while a strong, stressful white light shines on Moses and Kitch. We are supposed to be afraid for them, and we do.
What’s extraordinary about this production is that, despite the threat of violence hanging over their two main characters, Taymor and her cast have dug into the play’s rich comedy this time around. In many scenes, Nwandu’s language is brimming with joy and humor. Smallwood and Hill (who founded the role of Moses in Steppenwolf) have also deepened their achievements since the Lincoln Center run. Seeing them work together is a joy in itself.
There are moments that feel a little awkward, especially when Moses, a reluctant prophet, finally takes on his role as the one who can lead Kitch and himself into the Promised Land through supernatural intervention. Here the piece deviates from its absurd roots and uses a deus ex machina that literally robs Ossifer of his ability to harm someone again. It will take more to get rid of the world’s Ossifers. After all, it took 10 plagues to change Pharaoh’s mind.
But perhaps in literally searching the play for an answer to police brutality and America’s deeply racist past and present, one is missing the point. Pass over itself – and the changes it has undergone – symbolize the kind of evolution that is necessary for humans to open their eyes and see what they could not or did not want to see before. America’s promised land is here, the play tells us, it’s always been here – but we don’t yet know how to see it. This is an ending that we haven’t written yet.