As the live Philadelphia theater scene reopens after a long pandemic drought, Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over, coproduced by Theatre Exile and Theatre in the X, brings performers and a live audience back together to consider the tragedy of police violence against Black people.
To be convened as a community watching the action unfold on a stage outdoors — the work is being performed at South Philly’s Hawthorne Park — is a reminder of how alone we’ve been to process our anguished thoughts during the physical isolation of the pandemic.
The gripping production, directed by Ozzie Jones, underscores what we’ve been missing.
In an 80-minute show without intermission, the play tells the story of two young Black men, Moses and Kitch, who talk over and over about their dream to, one day, finally leave the block where they hang out. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is an influence, as is the Biblical Passover story.
It is a block that could be in any U.S. city, where violence from police officers, and also from within the community, consume the men with dread.
Moses (the versatile and often funny Jared Chichester) and Kitch (Davon Johnson, in a performance of commanding physicality), play a game, “promised land,” where they give the top 10 things they want when they “pass over” into paradise.
The game shows how the two men, in their late teens or early 20s, struggle with life in an in-between world of childish dreams and manhood:
Kitch wants a pair of Air Jordans that are “not thrift store new, but new new.”
In addition to sleeping on soft sheets with a not-yet-found girlfriend next to him, Moses talks of having “my bright red superman kite,” a “drawer full uh clean socks,” and “my brotha here wit me, back from the dead.”
Moses and Kitch fear the violence that has killed him and so many of their friends. At one point, Kitch lists about 25 men they know who have been killed : “yo brotha; Ed from the other night … dumb Terry, wall-eyed Terry, wall-eyed Terry cousin … Julio, Andre.”
Moses breaks in: “Which Andre?” and Kitch replies “both,” before continuing the list: “man I ain’t finished yet.”
As they play the game, they flinch at the sounds of police sirens. They wonder if violence in their own neighborhoods, among young Black men themselves, is a kind of exodus from that fear.
A third strong actor, David Pica, plays two white characters who encounter Moses and Kitch on the block: Mister, a white man who has gotten lost in their neighborhood, and Ossifer, a police officer. As Mister, he is nerdy and clueless. As Ossifer, he tells the young men, without reason, to assume the position of kneeling with hands behind their heads: “Come on boy you know the drill.”
In the outdoor setting at Hawthorne Park, at 12th and Catharine Streets, a passerby seemed stunned when Pica approached the stage in his all-black police uniform, a prop gun at his side. But, of course, Black men on city blocks across America are approached by police like that, relentlessly.
Moses and Kitch repeatedly say they are “gitting up off dis block.” They say they are passing over, but to where? To heaven? To freedom? To death?
Like Beckett’s play, this Pass Over production has elements of tragicomic slapstick. The audience laughter may unnerve you in a play about such a serious topic. I felt that way initially. But the work is ultimately a powerful one, and the humor is intentional.
People walking past on the sidewalk next to the park were a bit of a distraction. It helped that the production provided headsets so audience members, even in the back, could hear the dialogue.
Pass Over had its world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2017. A 2018 Lincoln Center production will open on Broadway in August — the first show scheduled to open there post-pandemic.
Through June 27 at Hawthorne Park, 12th and Catharine Streets. (Rain date, June 28). Tickets $25 (pay-what-you-wish Saturday, June 19). Information at 215-218-4022 (leave a message if unattended) or theatreexile.org.