By Antoinette Nwandu
Through March 1.
Special pre- and post-show conversations with guest experts and members of the creative team are scheduled throughout the run.
Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange
By GWEN OREL
“You’re a man.”
Remember those words.
They matter a lot in Antoinette Nwandu’s play “Pass Over,” a savvy and at-times startling production at Luna Stage now through March 1.
Alex Haley said of Malcolm X, in the epilogue to the Malcolm X autobiography, that he was “always that rarest thing in the world among us Negroes: a true man.”
Being a black man means a feeling of menace and danger.
If you try to “translate” the play, you will get lost. But really, how can you “translate” a feeling? It’s as much a mistake to see the two urban black youths, Moses and Kitch, who dream of a “pass over” to get off their block, as being “really” in New York or Chicago as it is to set Samuel Beckett’s little tramps in “Waiting for Godot” Vladimir and Estragon on the western shore of Ireland.
“Pass Over” works as a kind of dream: its message may be grounded, but its medium is surreal. The play, which won the Lucille Lortel award last year, has had its share of controversy following a cancelled production in Los Angeles, and receiving a review in Chicago from Hedy Weiss that many saw as racist.
Just like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, Moses and Kitch play with words, and comic fantasy, to pass the time.
But this is Didi and Gogo in an American idiom. The “po-pos,” the police, have shot and killed many of the boys’ friends. They live in terror so extreme that sometimes they collapse. Moses, the wiser head, grows weary of their game of dreaming of 10 things they’ll have in the promised land: new Air Jordans. A drawer of clean socks.
Then Mister, a white man, enters. He’s very white, in beige three-piece suit and loafers, carrying an old-fashioned picnic basket filled with all kinds of food. He says “gosh golly gee.” He acts mild.
Then “Mister” says to call him “Master.” It’s terrifying. “Oh dear,” he says, insisting it’s just a name. The aggression and apology feel all too familiar in 2020. You decide if this is gaslighting or miscommunication. He is a person, he is systemic racism, he is overt oppression, all at once.
The acting throughout is fantastic, and Haqq has staged some wonderful comedy. At one point the boys realize that if they talk like Mister, the white man, and stop using the N-word so much (they use it as casually to refer to one another as others might say “dude”), they will pass (not pass over, just pass). And we see that happen before our eyes as a policeman does not recognize them.
Woodrow Proctor, as Mister and also the sadistic policeman Ossifer, is twitchy, scary, weird; his performance truly haunts. You decide if he’s the White Devil, a real person, a dream.
Director Devin Haqq has set the play in alley staging, with the action in the middle and the audience on two sides, and a raised platform at one end. This turns the audience into voyeurs, which is unsettling, and the point.
Kevis Hillocks, as Moses, has star-turn authenticity: his face shows us clearly what he’s thinking, without ever seeming to try. Robert Barnes’ Kitch shows wonderful physical versatility.
Not everything works: the program tells us the play is partly set in 1855, but this does not read, even as a dream. Music cues are too long, especially at the end.
Nwandu is less open-ended and existential than “Godot,” but it poses important questions.
As good theater must.