Review: A Modern Masterpiece Comes to Broadway with Pass Over
When Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu Go over premiered in 2017 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf (where Spike Lee filmed it) and then premiered at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater in 2018, America Was A Different Place. We had yet to go through a life-changing pandemic, and whites had yet to realize that what blacks had been saying for generations about the prevalence of police violence in communities of color was, in fact, true.
This second problem remains a main theme in Go over: The character of Ossifer (menacingly played by the brilliant Gabriel Ebert) is a manifestation of the kind of brutal and racist police behavior we’ve all witnessed. But while the first and second versions of Nwandu’s play had endings that portrayed the tragic results of this sort of behavior, in the play’s new production at Broadway’s August Wilson Theater, the tone and substance of the ending is very different.
Nwandu transformed his play from a disturbing tragedy into a disturbing but hopeful tragicomedy. It is still a modern and brilliant masterpiece that draws inspiration from both Samuel Beckett’s riffs Waiting for Godot and the biblical story of Exodus, but this new production, again directed by Danya Taymor and starring the stellar cast of Lincoln Center, walks away from the deadly climaxes of the first and second productions and resolves with footage from hope and reconciliation. As a result of America’s testimony to the police murders of blacks, the play no longer has to show the audience that violence is happening; now it offers the possibility that cash It could happen.
Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood (both giving virtuoso performances) reprise their off-Broadway roles as Moses and Kitch, respectively, two young black men living their precarious existences on a dangerous street in a sparse cityscape dominated by a large lamppost (Wilson Chin’s dark and ominous setting suggests the room’s Beckettian lineage). The threat of the po-po (the police) always puts the couple on alert. “You’re killing me now!” Cries Moses when he wakes up from a restless night’s sleep. “Bang bang,” Kitch replies. And so begins another day for the couple, who spend their hours making jokes and dreaming of finding a promised land where food is plentiful, material wealth is easy, and cops are nowhere to be found.
In their world of floor lamps, Mister, a white man (still Ebert) dressed in a light-colored suit and wearing a baseball cap and shiny white Nike high-top shoes (costume design by Sarafina Busch). Monsieur claims to have got lost on his way to his mother’s house, but since he is in the neighborhood, he offers to share the cornucopia of his picnic basket. Moses senses that there is something wrong with this white man, whose gee-gollies and by-goshes seem suspicious, but Kitch is eager to eat and quickly gets on well with this bearer of abundance. Monsieur’s super polished plating opens wide, however, when, in a provocative discussion of the N-word, he reveals that his real name is Master and exclaims, “It’s all mine!” – including this word.
Ossifer agrees, as we’ll later hear him casually spitting the word when he subjects men to humiliating searches of a violent and vaguely sexual nature. Sound designer Justin Ellington and lighting designer Marcus Doshi give these scenes a terrifying feel: a rumbling bass note ripples through the air as an incriminating white light shines on Moses and Kitch. We are supposed to be afraid for them, and we do.
What is extraordinary about this production is that, despite the threat of violence hanging over its two main characters, Taymor and his actors have this time immersed themselves in the abundant comedy of the play. The language of Nwandu is overflowing with joy and humor in many scenes. Additionally, Smallwood and Hill (who created the role of Moses in Steppenwolf) have deepened their performances since racing at Lincoln Center. Seeing them work together is a joy in itself.
There are times that seem a bit awkward, especially when Moses, a reluctant prophet, finally embraces his role of one who can lead himself and Kitch to the Promised Land through supernatural intervention. This is where the play turns from its absurd roots and uses a deus ex machina that literally strips Ossifer of his ability to hurt anyone again. It will take more to get rid of the Ossifers from the world. After all, it took 10 plagues to change Pharaoh’s mind.
But maybe looking at the play at face value for an answer to police violence and America’s deeply racist past and present is missing the point. Go over itself – and the changes it has undergone – symbolize the kind of evolution needed for people to open their eyes and see what they previously couldn’t or didn’t want to see. America’s Promised Land is here, the coin tells us, it’s been here forever, but we don’t know how to see it yet. It’s an ending we haven’t written yet.