Antoinette Nwandu’s play “Pass Over” had me nervous. Does it walk the thin line of egregious circumstance yet meaningful substance? While written with all audiences in mind, does it lose its Black authenticity with that responsibility?
“Pass Over,” directed by Malcolm Pelles, is a captivating story of what it means to be Black in America, finding space for the funny, the hopeful and the deadly without forcing any of it in. With an influence from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” “Pass Over” tells the story of two Black men using escapism to find a way to escape their ghetto literally.
Everything felt right about director Malcolm Pelles’ production at Stage Left Theater.
There is a Black presence throughout, with Wu-Tang apparel and MF Doom stickers on the light poles. There is also a universal display of Black dialects as main characters Moses and Kitch bounce around their day using flavors of Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta slang, but the line deliveries are what make “Pass Over” so relatable. This could be any metropolitan American city. That is the point.
Dahveed Bullis and Matt Slater are the respective actors of Moses and Kitch, giving phenomenal, multifaceted performances portraying a shared dream of “getting up out the hood” by any means necessary.
When Kitch recites a long list of his homies dying from gun violence, it helps stir emotions of the never-ending violence that Black people face in America. Julio, Andre, Justin with the elbow rash, Kev, Da’Quan, Fat Joe, Dumb Terry, Terry’s cousin with the messed up knee, are all men who died and live on through Kitch’s dreams of getting out, and their legacies could also be trapped in that dream. Bullis and Slater deftly depict the power struggles of Black masculinity, homophobia, hypermasculinity and hypersexuality.
Act I serves as an emotional journey from pessimistic to hopeful, the duo naming 10 things they’ll receive once they make it out to the “Promise Land,” a place where hood problems don’t exist and being Black is not deadly. Though that place may not exist in America, Moses and Kitch play around with the idea, and it’s a moment to showcase Bullis’ onstage vibrancy and Slater’s hilarious skepticism, quizzing each other about the “difference’’ between caviar and fish eggs. The duo’s onstage chemistry makes them feel familiar.
But all that changes when Mister, a random white man portrayed by Danny Anderson, enters the play. Anderson plays Mister and Ossifer, meaning Officer, which is a fantastic distortion of the word if you say it too quickly, like you’re panicking about being killed.
Mister displays an out-of-touchness that many non-Black Americans can feel toward Black communities. He does not duck when he hears the rapid gunshots and cannot remember if his mother or his mother’s “hired woman” makes pinto beans a certain way. He even enjoys a picnic on the block that Moses and Kitch are begging to move from. It’s a fantastic display of how white cognitive dissonance will always clash with Black trauma and hypervigilance.
Once Anderson steps into Ossifer’s persona, he harasses and mocks Kitch and Moses, using racial slurs and beating the two men. Around him, the duo instantly erases stereotypical behaviors to make themselves more palatable, in the hope of being less killable, to police officers. The gruesome display of violence is a realistic look at how the hope of Black prosperity can easily disintegrate in hostile anti-Black environments.
All of the little elements of the production were outstanding. “Pass Over” shows the sadistic tradition of undying Black grit and the hopelessness that ensues. It is written about Black men, performed by them, yet up for everyone’s observation.
With that in mind, I interviewed the most significant audience members at Stage Left: Noah Cunningham and Adrian Taylor Jr., the only Black men in attendance that night.
They wore all the fashion styles our Black parents tell us not to in case of police run-ins; durags, big diamond earrings, Nike jumpsuits, a black hoodie covering their heads and Dri-FIT ski masks as COVID protection. Their apparel displayed a ripe friction between moving freely in Black manhood and being killed for it, a prominent struggle captured perfectly within “Pass Over.”
“They were making a point in the play of knowing when to talk and look ‘proper,’ ” Taylor said. “When you’re talking to more professional people, you have to act a certain way to get to where you want to go in life.”
Both 19 and finishing up their freshman years at Eastern Washington University, they are members of a young Black generation that witnessed the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement after the killings of unarmed young Black people such as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Rekia Boyd. And the not-guilty verdicts and news conferences announcing no charges would be filed for their deaths.
They called “Pass Over” a relatable display of the fears and weariness related to police violence within the Black community.
“The friendship that they’ve got, I definitely felt it when they were looking out for each other,” Cunningham said. “It’s not just Black men who are keeping their heads on the swivel or protectiveness of one another, that is our community as a whole in these situations.”
“Even though Black men, we have our differences, we know when to come together and when to be protective over each other,” Taylor said.
Cunningham is also part Samoan and sees similarities between white people learning about anti-Black racism through “Pass Over” and his Samoan parent understanding the plight of Blackness. He appreciated Anderson’s dual role of Ossifer and Mister.
“No matter if you’re a cop, a white guy or white woman, you still have that power over Black people, no matter where you are in life. It doesn’t matter if you’re a cop or not, racism will always prevail,” Cunningham said.
Overall, the two agreed that “Pass Over” captured an overwhelming topic seamlessly. Since white people don’t experience anti-Black issues, however, the men hope “Pass Over” sticks and the privilege of detachment doesn’t erase the play’s significant message.
“I know there was a lot of white people here today, and this play is a start to change,” Taylor said. “I like what they are doing with this play.”
“But that’s the first step: acknowledging that racism and police brutality are a thing. I feel as if they gave a little insight of what we’re going through,” Cunningham said. “I don’t feel like anyone in here can fully comprehend unless you’re Black, though.”
“Pass Over” runs through Sunday, and half of the ticket sales purchased on Thursday will benefit the NAACP. For more information, go to stagelefttheater.org/.
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