By Antoinette Nwandu
Feb. 6-March 1
Special pre- and post-show conversations with guest experts and members of the creative team are scheduled throughout the run.
555 Valley Road, West Orange
By GWEN OREL
“Pass Over” by Antoinette Nwandu provokes questions about black history. Winner of the Lucille Lortel Award for Best New Play after a run at Lincoln Center, it is a riff on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” an allusion to Exodus, and a comment on American systems of oppression.
But, stresses Luna Stage Artistic Director Ari Laura Kreith, of Montclair, the play is relevant 12 months out of the year.
With its exploration of friendship, its invitation to care about the main characters, its inquiry into social justice, “Pass Over” is a play that Luna Stage would do at any time of the season.
Kreith will always connect a play to history when there is an anniversary: for example, “Mrs. Stern Wanders the Prussian State Library,” by Jenny Lyn Bader, about a young Hannah Arendt, presented in November overlapped with the anniversary of Kristallnacht, so the theater marked that. She’s not unhappy to connect to Black History Month, but the play does not just “check a box.”
In “Pass Over,” two young men, Moses and Kitch, stand on the corner, hoping for a miracle, in a present-day ghetto, dreaming about the promised land.
Some productions of the play have encountered backlash: In 2017, Chicago Sun Times’ critic Hedy Weiss did not like the depiction of a white police officer, though she admired the play overall, and Steppenwolf Theatre criticized her for showing a “painful lack of understanding of this country’s racism.” A petition circulated to ask theaters to stop offering Weiss complimentary tickets to review (not every theater signed on, including Steppenwolf).
The New York Times has described the play as a “Black Lives Matter play layered with the past,” inspired by the killing of Trayvon Martin. The names Moses and Kitch, NYT reports, are taken from a South Carolina slavery manifest. Spike Lee filmed a streaming version of the play at Steppenwolf, directed by Danya Taymor, in 2018. And a production at Echo Theater Company in Los Angeles was cancelled, after its director was fired and the entire cast and design crew resigned, days before it was to open.
Kreith found the play overwhelming and moving when she read it. “It is a portrait of a friendship that is at once deeply universal and also incredibly specific to the experience of a particular group of young black men in the world of now,” she said. But the allegory and poetry of the play, with their allusions to Godot and Exodus, create an understanding of how the friends’ experience has existed in different ways through time, she added. “This does not minimize the horror and tragedy of where we are today, but if anything it offers a more urgent and compassionate perspective on it.”
The “Godot” riff will be familiar to anyone who knows Beckett’s play in which two tramps stand by a tree, waiting for Godot to come, passing the time. The Exodus allusions are there in the play’s title, to a character named Moses who wants to lead his friend to a better place, away from what’s enslaving them both, and to the dreams of a promised land, Kreith explained.
She has known director Devin Haqq as an actor for about 15 years. He has directed films, and this is his first major stage production.
‘LIKE YOU’RE BEING WATCHED’
Haqq, who is coming down from Brooklyn to direct, said he was “blown away” when he read the script.
With an MFA from Alabama Shakespeare Festival and credits from Actors Theatre of Louisville, he knows his classic theater: he has also directed a re-envisioning of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” titled “Ambition’s Debt,” which won the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative in the 2017 American Black Film Festival.
With this background, he caught all of the clever riffs to “Godot” immediately. “The playwright has done a clever and imaginative job of taking construction of play and putting
it in a modern context, in an urban environment with two black youths,” Haqq said. “It’s brilliantly crafted. It uses poetry and humor to highlight important issues we struggle with: white supremacy and white privilege and oppression, the chains of bondage and racial terror that have been perpetrated on black bodies in so many centuries.” It explores the effects of racial trauma on all Americans, he added.
And just as audiences enjoy the clowning and badinage of Didi and Gogo in “Godot,” Moses and Kitch are humorous and playful and fun — until something happens that changes the audience’s perspective, he said. It challenges audiences: “The ending is a sucker punch. It sits with you after you’ve read it or seen it. You want to talk about it.
“Theater is at its best when it does that. It’s a way to educate and process the issues we’re facing in our society.”
“Pass Over” is an important play, Haqq said. Conversations about systemic racism are still uncomfortable, even for people who call themselves liberals, and this play shines a light on that.
To highlight the feeling of “this is a discussion,” he has staged “Pass Over” at Luna using traverse or alley staging, in which the audience sits on two sides with the action in the middle.
“We created a space that brings the audience into the street corner with the characters,” Haqq said. “You feel like a part of the action, not removed from it. I want the audience to be implicated in this action, not observing from afar where they can say ‘That’s interesting, but I don’t have any responsibility with what I just saw.’ As you watch the play, you’re also watching other people watch the play. You feel like you’re being watched.”
Staging the play this way, which the theater describes in materials as “immersive,” is a challenge. Working with the playful language, which, like Beckett’s, uses repetition as an engine, is also a challenge, Haqq said.
But a lot of the play is fun. When one character is down in the dumps, the other brings him back up.” “They talk about the top 10 things they’re going to get when they reach the promised land. It’s a game they play every day as they sit on the corner and wait. You see the light and joy.
It’s fun to watch them envision bottles of Cristalle or a plate of food, the nice car or the great first date…It’s really about their envisioning themselves achieving the American dream. I’m looking forward to seeing how that resonates with audiences.”