by Georgia S. McDade
When I heard the title of ACT’s next play was Pass Over, I thought the subject of the play was about Judaism. But when I saw the title Pass Over is two words rather than one, I did not know what to think. “Being excluded” and “overlooked” crossed my mind. Although I was directed to the ACT website, I did not visit it until after the play — a mistake.
The playwright Antoinette Nwandu herself admits she had Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in mind when she wrote the play. As a long-time fan of Godot, I thought whatever the subject, Pass Over would be worth my viewing. Later I read that familiarity with slavery in Egypt helps one understand Pass Over. So, what I learned from my 13-week Judaism class at a nearby synagogue and my decades of attending Sunday School classes in a black Baptist church would indeed be helpful.
As far back as I can remember, I had heard clergy and laypersons compare the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt to the Africans and then African Americans being enslaved in what became and what is the United States of America. I can’t recall a time when I did not know about Moses, the Red Sea, and the Promised Land.
Then I was asked to review this play.
After seeing the play, I read in the playbill the warning about the language of the play. Though the characters have what my kindergarten teacher friend would call a “potty mouth,” the warning is about the use — or non-use — of one word: “the n-word.” Set off in a box and printed in a larger-than-usual font in the playbill, the author’s note bears repeating:
“Let me be crystal clear: Aside from the actors saying lines of dialogue while in character, this play is in no way shape or form an invitation for anyone to use the n-word. Not during table work, not during talkbacks, not during after-work drinks.
“If you’re running the room, then set the tone straight away. All you have to say is something like, ‘when you want to talk about the n-word, say “the n-word.”’ Everyone will know what you mean! And then make sure everyone does exactly that.”
This is an interesting imperative when one considers how often the word or a version of it is used in the play. ACT also passed out a flyer informing audience members “Pass Over can be difficult … please visit acttheatre.org/Passover.”
This 80-minute, no-intermission play could be set on any street corner in an urban city with a large black population; the stage could be an auction block. A block with a chain connected to it remains on the stage throughout the play. The young, never relaxed black men Moses (Treavor Lovelle) and Kitch (Preston Butler III) converse about nothing and everything, laugh and joke about everything with a tenseness that belies the laughing and joking.
Eventually, a lost white man en route to visit his ill mother shows up with a picnic basket of food, some of which he gives to the hungry young men. Later a white policeman — there are other kinds — shows up, misuses his power, and leaves. Near the end of the play, when it appears the young men are somewhat hopeful, the lost white man returns.
I hope the audience thinks the two visitors should have stayed away. I cannot tell because this audience laughed long and often. And I know all laughter is not equal. Some people laugh because they are happy, some anxious, others uncomfortable, still others afraid.
The lady in the seat behind me laughed from beginning to almost the end of the play. Her cackling laugh made me uncomfortable! If I were paranoid, I might have thought she was laughing at me not laughing! I never laughed, no, not even when the characters teased or tricked each other or mangled a word. I never saw funny. Nothing, nothing is funny in this play. I may have to see the play again to see if the audience laughs similarly and I can see something funny; maybe I need to reassess what I saw and heard.
I see the young men’s physical idleness, appearing to have nowhere to go. But I hear their brains working hard, steadily thinking, evaluating the little they do know. I know they are hungry physically. I can never laugh at people being hungry regardless of the path they trod getting there. I know the young men are mentally and spiritually hungry too. Their wants are not unheard of. They want what all sane people want: food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, in other words, “certain unalienable Rights… Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Sane, healthy people do not want to be incarcerated for something for which others would not be incarcerated. What innocent people want to be incarcerated? Who wants to die in the streets, especially unarmed? Just as the geniuses who wrote the Declaration and Constitution excluded folks who looked like them then, far too many folks exclude them now and often on the same basis — the color of their skin. I see persons who need help. I help, attempt to help, or direct them to a place to get help.
Long after I knew the story of Moses and his God I realized something that I don’t recall hearing in Sunday School lessons or sermons: Moses did not get to the Promised Land. God allowed him only to see the Promised Land.
“I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you may not go there.” Deuteronomy 34:4.
The Africans who arrived here — when they discovered someone who could speak their language — must have had conversations similar to those of Moses and Kitch, must have had bucket lists with being freed, going home the number one through ten items well over 150 years before the birth of The American Dream. To think that the dreams of Moses and Kitch could be as unrealistic as the dreams of those Africans is abhorrent.
Pass Over joins other plays in Seattle where blacks have major roles from writing to staging: the recently ending Nina Simone: Four Women directed by black woman Valerie Curtis Newton and starring four black women; Don’t Call It A Riot written and directed by black woman Amontaine Aurore and starring an almost all-black cast; The Call written by black woman Tanya Barfield; The Agitators written by white man Mat Smart and directed by black woman Valerie Curtis Newton and half the cast being a black man.; Behold the Dreamers written by Cameroonian Imbolo Mbue and directed by white woman Annie Lareau. Coming soon is Shakespeare’s As You Like It, directed by black man Timothy Piggee.
With Pass Over, my hope comes not from its content but from this and other plays being produced on major stages here and around the world. I always vote for diversity!
ACT managing director Becky Witmer wants audiences to “lean in and ask, Where am I in this play? Where is my city? How would Moses and Kitch reach their dreams in this community?” I want that too. I want not one young man — actually, no one — to be passed over. And I know the dreams of many young people become a reality because I am often in contact with some of them, have helped many of them. But I want the dreams of more, many more to become realities. The world would be a better, safer place if more persons were not passed over.
See the play. Judge for yourself. Lean in. Act.
Featured Image by Chris Bennion.
Pass Over runs through June 23 at ACT, 700 Union Street. For tickets and information, visit acttheatre.org or call 206.292.7676.