Image: Pass Over

(L to R) Jared Chichester (Moses), David Pica (Mister) and Devon Johnson (Kitch).

This story was originally posted on June 30th, 2021. A revision was added on July 7th, 2021.

The first of the four questions asked early in the Passover seder is “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The two central characters of Antoninette Nwandu’s play Pass Over would be more apt to ask, “Why is this damned night not much different from all the other nights?”

As the play rolls into action, we meet those two characters at the center, Moses and Kitch, on “a ghetto street” during a typical tense night. Moses wakes from a nightmare and, still in the thralls of that nightmare, blurts out his first line: “Kill me now.” That opening signals the direction the play will be moving in.

Nwandu wrote Pass Over as a reaction to the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin back in 2012. (The play’s first run was at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2017.) If Trayvon Martin’s killing was senseless, the killings our two protagonists discuss are largely intentional, the acts of local brutal cops. They’re the killings they themselves fear becoming victims of. These fears propel their activities on the streets, lurk in their dreams (thus, Moses’ nightmare) and even taint their relationship.

Playwright Nwandu took this fraught situation and proceeded to shape it into an engaging piece of theatre. The narrative, such as it is, is propelled by raw energy. What gives the work a unique quality is that Nwandu borrowed from two famous literary models as templates: the Biblical Book of Exodus and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. She then incorporated her two young men and their life experiences into the Biblical and Beckettian templates.

The Book of Exodus laid the groundwork here. Like the ancient Israelites, our two protagonists are hoping to escape bondage. But in this Pass Over, the bondage is emotional, with some financial bondage also wedged in. The two refer to the area they’re trapped in as “the block” and sometimes as “the plantation”, while the place they wish to get to, they dub “the promised land”. This “promised land” is a place where they reside at luxury hotels and place extravagant orders with room service while enjoying wonderful relationships with the women of their dreams. (They’re both fully unattached at this point.) Fittingly, it’s Moses who plans to lead the two of them out of bondage and to that promised land.

Nwandu borrowed many elements from Waiting For Godot, but the most obvious influences are in the twisting, often despairing dialogue and the repeated resolutions to quit their present locale while never being able to do so. Both of these elements are major parts of the symbiotic relationship that serves as the core of the play.

As in Godot, many of the young men’s discussions turn into playful banter and extended role playing. But these tension-reducing reveries are interrupted by gunshots not too far off as the playwright yanks them back to the harsh reality of their ’hood. The narrative, such as it is, is propelled by raw energy.

Also, as in Godot, the interaction of the two is interrupted a few times by the sudden appearance of outsiders. In this case, the outsiders are two white guys – one an apparent innocent who got lost on his to his mother’s place and the other, a ruthless white cop. (As described in the script, the white cop is “not from around here, but always around”.) The way the two central characters react and relate to these intruders sharpens our sense of their relationship with each other.

Antoinette Nwandu’s writing skills are most fully on display in the dialogue. The language of the two central characters cascades in rich flows of inner-city idiom. There’s a lyrical quality to their exchanges that seems to temporarily lift the two out of the social morass they find themselves in. By the way, if you’re easily offended by harsh language, you might be best advised to put your headphones under your seat. The show offers a deluge of N-words and F-words that might even cause David Mamet to blush.

The weakness in Nwandu’s play is in her portrayal of the two White characters. The first to appear is a cartoonish figure, a bumpkin given to saying things like “Gosh golly gee…” when surprised or shocked.

To be fair, the cartoonish aspects of this character are not a serious flaw, as the play is hardly of the Realistic school, and Mister (his designation in the script) adds to the Absurdist texture of the play.

But the White policeman (dubbed “Ossifer”) was too easily drawn from the stockroom of sadistic cops. This man of the law would have served the play much better had he been more calculating in how he displayed his nasty behavior. After all, Pozzo in Waiting For Godot is himself a mentally deranged sadist, but he’s also a rather complex figure.  

Even if the language isn’t spare, the set values of this production certainly are. The outdoors venue is South Philly’s Hawthorne Park. I suspect the venue was chosen out of an abundance of caution as we move slowly out of the pandemic restrictions, but it doesn’t serve the play as well as an indoor staging with a well-designed set would have. Playing in a public park carries its own restrictions, especially on summer evenings when the temperatures are set for discomfort.

More, the acoustics in the park are not optimal for a theatrical performance where language is a major part of the play’s power. The producers wisely elected to provide audiences with headphones that allowed them to hear the dialogue more clearly, as well as adding advantageous sound effects. (For instance, at well-placed intervals, we hear sirens, evidently police sirens, through the headphones.)

This rendition of Pass Over is a co-production of Theatre Exile and Theater in the X, a West Philly-based company known for its gripping outdoor productions. The director is Ozzie Jones, a theatre veteran with a long roster of credits.

In the role of Moses, Jared Chichester spins out a high-energy, often gruff performance. Chichester too often punches out his lines, which defines his character as the bullying alpha male. But in doing this, he loses some of the subtext of pain and self-doubt that could make this Moses a more complex creation.

Davon Johnson gives a more nuanced performance as Kitch. The script actually seems to call for more nuances in this character, and Johnson was clearly able to deliver. As a result of Johnson’s more deft handling of his character, there was a shift in the power balance between the two. In this production, Kitch is not quite as deferential to Moses as in the Steppenwolf version. In fact, at times he seems to be more in control of the situation than Moses.

David Pica doubles as Mister, the weird White dude, and as the White cop. (In the original Steppenwolf Theatre production, the two were played by different actors.) This was a good strategy by director Ozzie Jones, as it suggests a psychological connection between the two that ultimately works well as the play reaches its climax.

On the other hand, Pica’s performance plays into the cartoonish aspects of the characters rather than against them. Any nuances are neutered. His two characters are therefore less interesting than they could have been, and the interaction between the White characters and the two central figures proves less interesting.

Let me walk that back slightly: Pica’s strongest appearance comes in the closing moments of the play. I won’t drop any spoilers here, but his pinpoint performance in those moments produces a suitably chilling effect which was a perfect ending to the show.

Pass Over has finished its run at Hawthorne Park. Theatre Exile’s next production – The Ever Present – will also be performed outdoors and opens in September. The Ever Present is a new work developed with locally based playwright and humorist R. Eric Thomas. Consult the Theatre Exile website for more info and tickets for this upcoming show.

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