In order to communicate the message that “we as a people need to heal,” the “Pass Over” author made a brave decision to modify her play’s ending.
The cast and crew of “Pass Over” are getting amped up in a midtown dance studio for the first rehearsal of the show that will be the first to open on Broadway since the start of the pandemic. The evening begins with an address by director Danya Taymor: It’s been three years since the Off-Broadway run, and many of the original cast members are coming back for this revival.
She notes that every year the play is performed in the summer, right around the time of the NBA Finals. This puts us “dab in the pocket,” she says. As the saying goes, “This project always seems to draw in everything it needs, and it always provides us just enough time to finish it.”
Producer of Pass Over
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, the playwright and producer of Pass Over, looks up from her Sweetgreen salad and exclaims, “Oh, does it!” Humor is present. This time around, they are inundated with tasks. After all, it is Nwandu who alters the play’s conclusion.
The first rehearsal for Pass Over will take place on July 7, and the show’s Broadway debut, featuring Nwandu in the lead role, will take place at the August Wilson Theatre on August 4. Since 2016, Nwandu’s been putting on a show about two Black men on a street corner.
It combines the clowning humour of Waiting for Godot with the biblical tale of Exodus and features only three actors, which is convenient given that the entire cast and crew needs to spit into vials for COVID-19 testing every few days. Kitch (Namir Smallwood) and Moses (Jon Michael Hill) pass the time in the corner by playing word games and discussing a hypothetical future where they will be able to “cross over” to a promised land.
Both the upper-middle-class Mister, played by Gabriel Ebert, who condescends to warn them to cease using the N-word, and the intimidating Ossifer, a policeman, stand in their way of making this voyage. In earlier draughts of the play, Moses is killed right before he and Kitch have a chance to reach the promised land.
Nwandu’s goal with this retelling isn’t to build suspense toward the tragedy of Moses’s death, but rather to highlight the optimism and silliness of the two protagonists. To the actors and crew, Nwandu says, “I just want everyone’s humanity to take up more time.”
There is no new script yet, but the performers who played the same roles off-Broadway are going to use these early rehearsals to figure out how to adapt their performances to reflect the fact that both characters will make it. They reread the 2018 edition for the first time with fans whirring in the corners to keep things cool. Hill reflects, “it is what it is, and in the second act I’m trying to rediscover joy.”
As productions make the transition to the midtown theatre district, playwrights often make final adjustments to their scripts. Rarer still is the revision that takes into account the current historical context. After making it to the year 2020, Nwandu made the conscious decision that she did not want to spend any more of her life “rehearsing a play about a lynching,” or bringing any more death onto the stage.
The changes she made aren’t the only thing that came out of the chaos of the past year. It’s likely a response to the demands of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) theatre artists who last summer demanded that the theatre industry shut down until it addressed its systemic racism, committed to better representation onstage, and put more BIPOC in positions of power, that this production of Pass Over will be joined on Broadway by six other new plays by Black playwrights.
However, Nwandu is also reacting to changes in her own life. After learning she was expecting in the spring of 2020, not long after Broadway went on lockdown, she miscarried in July. Her wedding to her longtime partner terminated this spring.
The play is in rehearsal as she searches for a new place to settle down; she has come back to it with the intention of remaking it, herself, and the theatre as a whole. As the saying goes, “I’m hopeful, but…” Nwandu speaks that final part, and then he chuckles. Also, “I’m a Black lady living in the United States.”