Friday, June 14, 2019

Searing “Pass Over” Can’t Be Just “Described”

Preston Butler III, Treavor Lovell, and Avery Clark in Pass Over (Chris Bennion)
Pass Over
ACT Theatre
Through June 23, 2019

Moses (Treavor Lovelle) and Kitch (Preston Butler III) are stuck on this one block. It’s not clear if they are homeless with nowhere else to go or stuck because violence ranges all around them and they’re afraid to leave or stuck because they’ve been told they must stay on this block (the audience hears commands to stay put). Perhaps it’s all of the above.

In playwright Antoinette Nwandu’s intense 80-minute play at ACT Theatre, Pass Over, these two are not waiting, like Didi and Gogo, for Godot to show up, they’re aching to leave. In frustrated, angry, hopeful, anticipatory, poetic, ‘n’-word-filled friendship-language, they’re waiting to leave.

Nwandu seems to be writing in a way that needs to penetrate White America. It’s not very subtle, for the most part. The entire piece is metaphor-heavy, trapping the two black men into scarcity and despair (there’s nothing to eat, see, read, do but make up games to pass the time), and sending in a tut-tutting Colonial-style (read “colonizing”) white man who unbends himself to graciously feed them and a white police officer to harass them for even thinking about leaving (both roles played by Avery Clark).
More allegories reference the Bible’s book of Exodus. Of course, Exodus was about slavery and the redemption of leaving “to the Promised Land” and there are more references than you might count, including the Moses’ name, and Kitch’s hope that Moses will think of a way to leave their lamppost. That Moses will lead them out of their current bondage.

In fact, the title of the play references the Hebrew holiday Passover, which the two men use to mean passing off of their current block, crossing the river that will part for them and allow them to be free.

In their vision of what freedom from “po-po” (PO-lice) and freedom to leave would feel like, the two think of a place where everything would be wonderful and where they could eat the finest foods and drink the finest beverages. In fact, they imagine the white man with the food to have that exact lifestyle.

This hopefulness, and the men’s clear attachment to each other, are the positive aspects of their lives that poke out of the bleakness like random flowers on the concrete corner. Nwandu wanted to demonstrate the enduring ability of the many inhabitants of Black America who survive and strive in the face of endemic violence and bigotry.

Nwandu, quoted in the program, says, “The radical nature of that act (choosing to be hopeful) …is a form of resistance…when every single voice and person says you’re not a human.”

Reading an article about this play is never going to be a way of experiencing it. It’s like describing Starry Night by Van Gogh and saying that it’s a painting with a bunch of stars in it.

The experience is challenging, of course, with every utterance of the ‘n’ word feeling like its own kind of bullet. The atmosphere is ominous, and danger feels imminent throughout. But that short description also could describe many city blocks all over this nation today.

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