Don’t Pass Over this acting

publicity photo for Pass Over

Chris Francisque (L) and Kwasi Thomas (Photo by Emily Cooper)

In Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, an urban street corner is also a slave plantation and Egypt — because Moses and Kitch, the two Black friends who are hanging out there, can’t leave.

Nwandu is taking inspiration from both the Bible’s Book of Exodus and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Inspired by their childhood Sunday school teacher, Kitch believes Moses will lead him to the Promised Land. But, when a white police officer they call Ossifer shows up, he makes the terms of their entrapment explicit: “One step off this block and I’ll shoot you dead.” Still, like Beckett’s tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, Moses and Kitch struggle to keep their hopes alive: unsure of how to change their state but dedicated to doing so, they play games to pass the time. In a favourite, Top Ten Promised Land, they list the pleasures they’ll experience when they’re truly free. Kitch dreams of caviar — until Moses tells him it’s fish eggs.

The are so many similarities to Godot. That play’s lone tree becomes a streetlamp. The turnip Vladimir offers to Estragon turns into an old pizza crust. The friends debate the complications of a double suicide. And they have visitors — who reveal the fundamental divergence between Godot and Pass Over: Godot’s existentialism is philosophical; Pass Over’s is about Black survival in the face of systemic racism.

As Ossifer makes clear, police violence is a relentless threat to Black bodies. When Moses and Kitch pause to remember all the friends and loved ones who have been shot by cops, listing them takes a while — and the list illustrates the poetic specificity that infuses Nwandu’s script. There’s Ed with the dreadlocks, “not light-skinned Ed”, “dat tall dude got dat elbow rash”, and Mike with “dat messed-up knee.”

The other visitor is a gosh-golly-darn white guy carrying a picnic basket. He was on his way to his mother’s house, he claims, when he lost his way. This guy is polite, but sinister — and, it turns out, the face of white liberalism. His name is Master, he tells Moses and Kitch: “Just a family name. Pass it down, pass it down.” And he’s clearly in the business of maintaining control: “If I don’t get to say the N word, why should you?”

The script is fantastically rhythmic. Moses and Kitch are forever going on playful riffs. And they try on different forms of delivery, including white speech and Black preaching.

With the help of Omari Newton’s direction, all three actors are terrific. Chris Francisque (Moses) and Kwasi Thomas (Kitch) capture the musicality, joy, affection, and despair — and they are unfailingly emotionally authentic. My hunch is the dynamic between the characters might be stronger if there were more differentiation between them, but that’s a directorial rather than a performance concern.

Actor Alexander Forsyth is also creepily effective. Double cast, he delivers contrasting portraits of Master and Ossifer. His Master is particularly subtle and insinuating.

As somebody who’s not living Black experience, I might be kidding myself, but my sense is that, if you’ve been paying attention to racial politics, little of the thematic content in Pass Over will surprise you, but that’s not to say it won’t be of interest; the script offers a portal into a visceral — as well as intellectually and artistically stimulating — experience of its perspective. Its eighty-minute running time flies by.

Nwandu originally wrote Pass Over as a response to the 2012 killing of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighbourhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman. It premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2016, seven months after the US elected Donald Trump. Since then, Nwandu has reworked the script so that it will continue to respond to changing moments in history. The most recent rewrite was for Broadway, where Pass Over was the first full play to come back after the pandemic shutdown. The angriest of these iterations ends in a death. The most recent doesn’t. Nwandu has said, “I now have three versions of this play from this era of American history … If your community needs the angry version, then do that. Present whichever version you need.”

I’m not going to tell you which version director Newton thinks Vancouver needs.

PASS OVER by Antoinette Nwandu. Directed by Omari Newton. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. On Saturday, June 18 at the Waterfront Theatre. Running in rep until July 2. Tickets

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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