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Broadway

Pass Over: Frontmezzjunkies’ Dynamic and Exciting Return to Broadway

Pass Over: Frontmezzjunkies’ Dynamic and Exciting Return to Broadway
Jon Michael Hill, Gabriel Ebert and Namir Smallwood in Pass Over on Broadway.

Photo by Joan Marcus

On a lovely Tuesday night in late September, I finally stepped inside a Broadway theatre for the first time in over eighteen months. It was quite the experience. I had found myself, I guess one could say, stranded in Ontario, Canada, far from the lockdown on Broadway, yet dreaming about the time when I could re-enter this theatrical land that I love. I had visions of what it might look like; feel like, but I must say that I was not prepared for the momentous feeling that would wash over me as I flashed my Ontario vaccination card and I.D. at the door, and walked into the August Wilson Theatre on 52nd Street to see Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s spectacularly intense and funny play, Pass Over. The entry, much like the play, felt heavy and a bit disconcerting, I must admit. I wasn’t used to the awkward weirdness of the current theatre experience, nor the proximity of others, but I breathed through it. I thought I’d be crying with joy, and in a way I was, somewhere inside, but the overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by SO MANY people was still a bit foreign to me, and the complexity and intricacy of the play filled me with a strange and intoxicating blend of connection and disturbance. Which, I must add, is the highest praise possible.

It’s an combination of forces, part Samuel Beckett existentialism, part Exodus, with a large protesting edge centered around the ideals of Black Lives Matter movement and the heightened awareness of racial profiling and police brutality, all layered on the strong shoulders of two young Black men stranded on a street corner dreaming of passing over to a safer land and a better future. Pass Over, the play, swings large yet small, with subtle gestures of abstractionism and intense internalized meaning, played out authentically and symbolically by the two central characters named Moses and Kitch in both language and movement. Their banter and jabs resonate, all under a streetlamp positioned in just a way that I couldn’t help but register as a dangerous tree branch in the South. The two are stuck, much like the characters in Waiting For Godot, engaged in an endless dialogue of captivating play and sudden assumed positions of terror that pull us into their orbit, whether we understand the conceptualizations or not. 

They talk about the dream of passing over, but find the exciting fantasy societally dangerous and deadly, and somewhere deep inside the rage and trauma, a dark and disturbing canvas is painted and remixed like a abstract collage. Playwright Nwandu unearthed Pass Over after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, finding a concept and language to register the terror inside our structure, and layering on the ideals and teachings of the Exodus story to make a stronger point. It’s compelling and disruptive, this unpacking of shared trauma, and we can feel the inequality of America holding these two men back, forcing them by racial injustice to stay in their assigned roles, as if attached to that streetlamp tree by some invisible but strong chain, made up of fear and confusion of what would await them if they stand up and Pass Over

Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood in Pass Over on Broadway.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Directed with a determined gaze by Danya Taymor (PH’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning), Pass Over delivers abstractionism in the guise of authenticism, and the formula finds its strong footing fast and furiously within the first few minutes. The two central characters, Moses (who is usually played by Jon Michael Hill (Broadway’s Superior Donuts)), is portrayed with vigor by Alphonso Walker Jr. (Kansas City Rep’s Native Son) in the performance I saw earlier this week, alongside the miraculous Namir Smallwood (LCT’s Pipeline) as his sidekick buddy, Kitch. Their connection is as clear as Godot, and just like that Beckett landscape, things staunter forward with the ease of going nowhere, quite beautifully. That is until a man in a white suit, referred to as Mister/Ossifer in the program, floats in to their shared space with a relaxed sense of entitlement. Played meticulously by the wonderfully agile Gabriel Ebert (Broadway’s Thérèse Raquin), the man personifies layers and layers of white privilege and liberal unawaredness, to say the least, and so much more. He’s like a white red riding hood on the way to his sick mother’s house with a basket of food, giving an uncomfortable bent symbol of racial stereotyping. But does this mean, in the eyes of white entitled culture that these two black men who live in on the corner are some sort of wolves in waiting? Is that what racist societal formulations are trying to tell us, or sell us? It’s a disturbing idea to juggle and play with, and I’m thinking that is Nwandu and Taymor’s proposition, especially as words and phrases are dropped casually out of the white man’s mouth; statements that make us sit up in discomfort and alarm, that instill fear for the two men’s safety against historical oppression. They want us to hear the casual comments and be alarmed, to feel the threat, veiled in the polite rebuttal. The writing, and the direction, is just so smart in these cringe-worthy moments, slapping us awake and giving us the sting.

In the midst of the pandemic and the death of George Floyd, the two characters Ebert plays on this tremendous stage; a racist police officer and a rich man named Master lost in the woods, elicit a response that is electric and uncomfortable, especially as the world evolves into something completely organic and unique, thanks to some epic design work by scenic designer Wilson Chin (PH’s The Thanksgiving Play), costume designer Sarafina Bush (Greenwich House’s Broadway Bounty Hunter), lighting designer Marcus Doshi (Second Stage’s Linda Vista), and sound designer Justin Ellington (LCT’s The Rolling Stone). The play gets you worked up and confused, somewhat, but in that brilliant manner that makes you want to unpack the puzzle for hours and days beyond. It’s exactly what is needed in theatre, especially a Broadway house: a play that doesn’t soothe our senses, but makes us itch inside the shock of discomfort, especially those liberal white audience members that can’t believe these things still happen in our world. There is a lot to sit up and take notice in, as we watch such a powerful piece of theatre on a Broadway stage. I just hope it’s the continual parting of the seas, this Pass Over, and not an artificial flash in the pan brought forth out of a temporary P.R. need, but forgotten once the light fades. Fingers crossed this is just the beginning, a passing over to a new way of engaging on the Broadway stage, a space where this play truly does belongs.

Pass Over

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Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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