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Surviving to the promised land
Theatre Exile and Theatre in the X present Antoinette Nwandu’s ‘Pass Over’
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen live theater, and it’s been just as long since I’ve been around a group of people the size of an opening-night audience. I can’t help but be aware of my surroundings: most of the folks in the audience are older. The majority of the audience is white, a handful of Black and brown people in the seats (it’s theater, nothing new there). The weather is perfect—clear skies, low humidity, and a breeze chilly enough to prompt regret at not bringing a hoodie. Everything looks normal, which is not a linear idiom these days. When you’ve been away from something for so long, you notice what you hadn’t noticed before. In my return to theater, Pass Over brought light to reservations about theater that can’t hide any longer.
Making it off the block
Let’s get this out of the way first: Pass Over, produced by the partnering Theatre in the X and Theatre Exile, is a great show. Antoinette Nwandu’s magical realism is gracefully nuanced and subtle, and Ozzie Jones directs sharp, convincing performances. Jared Chichester (Moses) and Davon Johnson (Kitch) offer performances that veritably hit home—and by home, I mean on the corner. Their characters’ friendship is endearing (or vulgar, depending on the viewer) and is peppered with imagination that makes their brotherly love magical, powerful, and authentically imperfect. The story flashes glimpses of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland against its realistic backdrop.
In this realistic wonderland are two young Black men who dream of world peace, bright red tulips, and collard greens with pinto beans waiting for them in their imagined promised land. But here, too, are young Black men who have long lists of homies who have been locked up or died at the hands of cops, and are unsure if they’ll ever make it off the block. To “make it off the block” means simply to survive, and Moses and Kitch can see their way there. Unfortunately, their hopes are seized from them, making for a play that’s engaging and frustrating at the same time.
A problem for the audience
Now, for the metaphysical part of Pass Over. Moses and Kitch’s daydreams are disrupted when some white dude with a tucked-in polo and khakis named Mister (played by David Pica) arrives, claiming he lost his way to his mother’s house. He’s got a bottomless picnic basket that has just what Moses and Kitch crave, and offers to share. Yes, he’s even got collard greens and pinto beans. So, clearly, this dude is bad news. We all see that, right?
Pica plays a cop too (referred to as Ossifer), threatening the lives of both Moses and Kitch. That’s not a spoiler because this is America and that narrative happens every day. Where this play lands is right where I expected it to, but that’s not the fault of the creators, here. That’s a matter of the audience.
This is where I found myself turning away. Hearing the cop raise his voice, seeing him point a gun at Moses and Kitch’s heads, watching their power, joy, and hopes stripped away from them as they comply for the sake of their lives, is hard to watch. Seeing the cop patrol Hawthorne Park (which is a ways away from the corner these two would likely stand on), still in character and uniform, was unsettling. Watching (many white) passersby inquisitively look toward the park only to keep walking (I assume they realized it was a performance) reminded me of how no one comes to the rescue of Black people in scenarios like this.
Pass Over, despite its fantastical elements, is real. Uncomfortably real, and that evocation is enough to know that this show is impactful. However, for folks like me who have spent so much time dodging stories like this in an attempt to preserve what joy I can, Pass Over is noticeably dated—but it doesn’t want to be. I wish theater and other mediums would stop mining Black trauma to make a point that has long been evident. Pass Over ends up being a reminder that we haven’t survived the block yet. That’s not the play’s fault, and maybe that’s the point. People like Moses and Kitch in the real world don’t need this kind of reminder.
Image description: A scene from Pass Over. Two young Black men look out into the distance. Jared Chichester (Moses) wears an unzipped black hoodie, revealing a black-and-white shirt that reads “It was all a dream” with an illustration of six stars, six flag stripes, and what looks like a silhouette of Martin Luther King Jr. To his right is Davon Johnson (Kitch), who wears a white Wu-Tang Clan shirt styled like an Andy Warhol painting, repeating the same image in varying colors. Trees from Hawthorne Park can be seen in the background.
What, When, Where
Pass Over. By Antoinette Nwandu. Directed by Ozzie Jones. Performed live outdoors at Hawthorne Park, 1200 Carpenter St., Philadelphia, through Sunday, June 27, 2021. Theatreinthex.com or theatreexile.org.
Some seating is provided, but bringing your own chairs and blankets is encouraged. Guests are required to wear masks at check-in. Guests are provided with wireless radio headphones for listening.
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