August Wilson is the first Broadway theater to open since Broadway shut down March 2020. Audiences are required to show proof of vaccination AND picture ID and to keep masks on inside the theater. A rousing cheer of recognition went up after the voiceover welcome.
Buddies Moses (Jon Michael Hill, who also starred in the play’s world premier at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2017) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood) hang out, even sleep on a street in an unidentified city. Like Beckett’s nihilist Vladimir and Estragon (Waiting for Godot), they seem to have always been in a suspended state of anticipation.
“I got plans— to rise up to my full potential,” Moses declares. Brace yourself. Playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu uses the N-word with the frequency and emphasis of David Mamet’s swearing – on steroids. The play, especially its first part, is thick with urban vernacular – all of which you may not catch (don’t sweat it) and sublimely executed hip-hop moves. Moses proclaims they’re getting off the block. Kitch will naturally follow.
Riffing off one another, the two fill their days making up fantasy gratification lists for such time as they pass over to “the promised land.” (The Bible’s Book of Exodus was evidently a second inspiration.) Moses’ is practical, Kitch’s extravagant. Every so often, lights change, indicating the presence of a cop car. Having lost an ungodly number of friends to police brutality, the young men reflexively freeze. Race politics control their lives.
Suddenly a white man (also dressed in white) wanders on to their turf apparently lost. A genial gee-whiz, gosh-golly kinda guy (Gabriel Ebert) ostensibly on his way to an elderly mother with a dinner basket (Riding Hood anyone?), the stranger offers them food. Lots of it and briefly serenades with a ukulele.
Kitch is dying to partake, Moses is wary. It turns out the man’s name is “Mister.” “It’s just a name!” Is it? Mister points out his hosts’ use of the N-word. By the time the white man leaves, Moses has resolved to try different vocabulary and see whether it works on a cop. When one walks by on his rounds, Moses emulates Master’s greeting and is met with a congenial nod. Then Kitch lets the colloquial slip and suffers consequences.
The play ricochets between humor, anxiety, aspiration, and violence. Its perhaps inevitable climax (with unique framing) is open to interpretation. It’s long and self-indulgent, though what works, really works.
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu appears to suggest that expecting freedom (lack of bigotry and violence) is futile. There’s humor but this is a dark, dark piece.
Jon Michael Hill inhabits Moses’ taut persona, perpetual suspicion, quick temper and repressed desperation. Kitch comes alive with Namir Smallwood’s believable sweetness, naiveté, and faith. Both men reflect their characters in every move and inflection. Actor chemistry is terrific. You’d think these two had known one another all their lives.
Director Danya Taylor’s use of the all but empty stage is skillfully engineered to feel organic, yet entertaining. Physical acting is at least as excellent as manifest characters. Pacing is expert.
Surrealist elements including Wilson Chin’s lush final set are great fun. Lighting Design (Marcus Doshi )seamlessly alters mood.
Pass Over by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu
Directed by Danya Taymor
Featuring Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood, Gabriel Ebert
The August Wilson Theatre
Through October 10, 2021