“Kill me now,” says Moses. “What are your Promised Land Top Ten?” counters his side- kick Kitch. Thus begins two memorable, masterful, spell-binding and heartbreaking performances by Christopher Lovell (Moses) and Jalen Gilbert (Kitch) in the dynamic duet of despair and determination that is Pass Over, a brilliant – and, hopefully, audience-transforming – play by Antoinette Nwandu which is currently playing at Studio Theatre.
Moses and Kitch, the protagonists of Pass Over, are two young Black men whose stereotypes are familiar to us with from our 24-hour news cycle and police blotters: they fit the profile. Standing on the street corner underneath a streetlight, Moses and Kitch do battle with the crazy-making frustration that results from living under a system of white supremacy – a system the purpose of which is to make you believe that you have no value and no future. That you are a n-word. Moses and Kitch use the n-word. They use it a lot. They talk, sleep, and when awake actively encourage each other to envision a future that is not punctuated by gunshots, shattering glass and unidentifiable threatening sounds that amount to a form of torture. But sometimes the despair gets the upper hand and that’s when we’ll hear Moses or Kitch state the repeated refrain, “Kill me now.” This cycle that repeats itself daily is their life.
Nevertheless, they persist. However, their attempts to maintain, reclaim, reconstruct or escape their lives on this street corner are interrupted periodically by two white men. These white men have related but distinct purposes. Ossifer’s sole purpose is to repeatedly humiliate the pair, reminding them of the hopelessness of their position and the meaninglessness of their lives. Mister (or is that Master?) has two tasks. First, he works to procure the collusion and participation of the two Black young men in rituals and role play. These rituals celebrate and reinforce the idea of the superiority of white people’s lives and values over those of Black people. (The primary ritual is a picnic which consists of foodstuffs, ostensibly meant for Mister’s mother, which is produced from an iconic picnic basket and staged on an equally iconic red-and-white checked table cloth.).
The ritual also serves to reinforce the idea that white people continue to own Black peoples’ lives. (As demonstrated by the fact that some of the food in the picnic basket is what we have already learned is a favorite from Moses’s childhood. However, Mister says that he made it just the way that Mister’s mother always did – or was it their hired woman who made it?) Second, Mister works to get the Black men to validate his innocence and non-responsibility for the destructive effects of white supremacy on their lives: he does this by the abundant use of the words “Gosh. Golly. Gee.” And, as the play goes on, any means necessary. Could anything be more absurd (or absurdist)?
“Just don’t make no sense.” – a song by Melvin van Peebles from Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death
Samuel Beckett is considered one of the key figures in what Martin Esslin called the “Theatre of the Absurd.” In the 1960s the Free Southern Theater, seeing the parallels in the absurd situations Beckett described and the absurd situation of Black folks in the United States under jim crow, undertook a tour of Waiting for Godot in the south of the United States. In Pass Over, playwright Antoinette Nwandu takes the setup for Beckett’s seminal absurdist play, Waiting for Godot, fuses it to the Jewish role-playing tradition of Passover and the Black American tradition of “making a way out of no way” (that is, of using available mythologies and tools to create what we need to survive – the practice that gave us the creation of spirituals with their Biblical reference points, blues, jazz, etc. ad infinitum). Ms Nwandu then applies this dramaturgical construction to examine the lives of two 21st century young Black men.
Whereas Beckett’s work could be misunderstood and over analyzed to the point that its message becomes abstract and academic, the despair, the helplessness and meaningless of the lives of the young Black men we see in Pass Over is concrete enough to us – and visceral. What is not quite as real or concrete enough to us – what we don’t usually see and allow to enter our awareness – is the value, validity and beauty of the language these Black men use nor the appropriateness and incisiveness of their strategies for survival.
Pass Over closes April 12, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
By now Washington, D.C. audiences should expect the revelatory and excellent work that Psalmayene 24 presents us with (You may have seen his work on Word Becomes Flesh, The Shipment, Native Son and other productions). His staging is distilled and stylized. I remember how a shoe became a gun, instantaneously, mid-sentence. I remember the chess-like movements of the actors that took them to precipices at the edge of the stage. And I remember the body movement/language that is as much a part of the communication between these two men as the spoken word. (This statement is as true for the young Black men that we see on the stylized street in this performance, as it is for the young Black men that we see on the streets and in the subways every day in DC). (You could call this movement “dancing,” but that suggests an ultimate result of entertainment and minstrelsy that denies the seriousness of the communication intended and needed.) Psalmayene 24 allows nothing onstage to waste or distract the energy that the audience puts into watching. In truth, not only the text, but we, the audience, are deftly directed. Our attention is focused both on the lives of the characters onstage and on our own lives (some of which, the production implies, could stand some revision).
All of the actors in this production make bold and fearless choices on a playing field where, for most of us, we are finding ourselves paralyzed by fear and subterfuge (During the 2016 elections do you remember how people being polled about who they would vote for lied to the pollsters? Have you ever experienced a troll in your Facebook feed?). We are dealing with life and death of people in the 21st century. On this stage our intentions as American citizens and individuals are pursued, shown and seen. That is what theater is for.
Cary Donaldson gives us portrayals that embody an insistence on white innocence and white brutality: a familiar ritualized politeness and civility that we have substituted for community and what used to be called citizenship. He pulls no punches. We owe him gratitude for this performance.
The “dynamic duo” of Christopher Lovell (Moses) and Jalen Gilbert (Kitch) make me want to see them again in whatever play either of them are doing. Their bodies bounce off the stage. Their intentions towards their fellow actor switch in the twinkling of an eye. And respect is what they give the lives of the young men they are portraying. Each of them embody an engaging combination of courage and resilience: an inheritance from warriors who fought in all of America’s wars and returned “home” to continued insult. Through their performance, Lovell and Gilbert allow us to see two courageous young men who show a tenderness to each other despite the brutalization of the oppression that would destroy their solidarity. (Their unity gives illustration of the principle Joseph Beam invokes when he says “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act.”)
There is nothing more absurd than the distortion forced upon the lives of these Black men (and by extension Black people throughout the United States) by the imposition white supremacy every day, unless it is our insistence that we not be made uncomfortable in our sanctuaries of art and culture by representations of and testimonies to this absurdity and our responsibility for it.
The play challenges us to drop our judgment and to love these young Black men where they’re at. Nwandu writes: “the language these men use, or the fact that their language offends you, doesn’t negate their right to inherit whatever promise America purports to offer.”
Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu. Directed by Psalmayene 24. Cast: Christopher Lovell, Jalen Jamar Gilbert, Cary Donaldson. Set Designer Brandee Mathies. Lighting Designer Keith Parham. Sound Designer Megumi Katayama. Properties Designer Deborah C. Thomas. Movement Tony Thomas. Fight Choreographer Robb Hunter. Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen. Director of Production Josh Escajeda. Technical Director Jeffery Martin. Production Stage Manager Autumn J. Mitchell. Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Gregory Ford.