The Kiln Theatre is presenting the London premiere of a masterpiece. Rising dramatist Antoinette Nwandu’s new play Pass Over weds the political with the poetic, in a powerful and moving new play about those who are ignored in our societies.
We open with two men on a street corner. Moses and Kitch. Word games commence: “you know… I know” banter to pass the time. Wounded lyricism and playful dreams of dates in hotels with room service meet with deadly silences when police cars are watching that might stop and search them. As they are doing nothing wrong, these personal invasions would be for no reason other than they are African-American.
“Who are you?” “You going somewhere?” The cycle of their street hopelessness is cemented. A hinted glimmer of “plans they got” to get off of the block rings through from time to time. They joke about weed, although neither of them has any.
They dream of futures away from “plantation thinking” and oppression. Then, a young man dressed in a white suit with a pink baseball cap enters offering a picnic that Kitch devours, but Moses resists.
We are in highly symbolic territory here, reminiscent of dramatist Biyi Bandele (Two Horsemen / Death Catches the Hunter). The boyish young man reveals his name is Mister, which they perceive as Master, all of which seems in strange and brilliant contrast to the checked gingham table-cloth and picnic basket he is offering them. An unnerving and original fear permeates the street corner, as this seemingly wholesome lad starts absorbing their every move and nuance. Mister carries a proud identity, delivering his lines like he wishes the whole world were just like him. His value system. His optimism. His colour. The scene is both gently frightening and horrifyingly real.
The title of the play may refer to the biblical Passover service which includes tragic plagues, including the slaying of the first born son. In a touching sequence, Kitch and Moses list the names of the friends and relatives who have been killed by police brutality.
The American Black Lives Matter movement and the wave of policemen and women who racially profiled and killed black men is at the heart of this unique drama. Police brutality and murder are what Moses and Kitch have learned to fear most.
Moses (Paapa Essiedu) creates a regal and dignified character, and the perfect foil to Kitch’s (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr’s) bubbly, playful, pizza-crust-sharing street buddy. Sometimes their powerful ensemble energy makes us feel like they could split the waters and open the dead sea they poetically speak of. Both actors are fierce listeners, and play off of each other with with exceptional precision and spontaneous wit. Moses and Kitch don’t belong in this situation, and we pray for their triumphant escape.
The play invites the audience to put together its biblical and modern imagery, and Pass Over‘s genius is that the writing pulls us deeply into understanding the real corruption of humanity being exploited here.
I’m afraid the plague sequence had me more baffled than enlightened, but I gained a better understanding of the biblical references hours after the production, which stays with you long after you get your transport home.
But this minor quibble does not distract from the important message I think Ms. Nwandu is saying with her play: that police are racially profiling black men and killing them. The injustice involved in this practice is unacceptable. Whole sections of our society are being overlooked. They haven’t got a chance because of the colour of their skin.
The production is emotionally shattering, directed with great flair and detail by Kiln Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham. She injects highly physical humour into the character’s lack of hope, filling the hours of waiting with playful banter, hand jives and street dance. A stark and lonely set (Robert Jones), perfectly lit by Oliver Fenwick complements the shifts from the naturalistic to the surreal. The tone and mood is enhanced with an elegant and versatile sound design by Ben and Max Ringham.
The third character of Mister begins as a stereotype of white guilt. Gently, his supremacy and entitled self opinion seethes through, as he attempts to be inclusive with Moses and Kitch, but on his terms. His “golly, gee wizz” dialogue is suitably obtuse, as we know little of his reason for being on this street corner, other than he’s travelling to feed his mother the food he grew. But he emerges into a variation of learned southern white supremacy. Actor Alexander Eliot gives a valiant attempt to fill out this slightly under-written role, with a gleeful Michael J. Fox approach, which sometimes seems to belong in a different play. His character’s return at the end of the play is tragic, and his curtain epilogue lays blame on racial ignorance.
The poetry takes the play to soaring heights of surreal beauty, while inviting us to dig deep in ourselves to question our values.
Will the angel of death pass over these two men with such endearing personalities that reveal real potential? A drooling policeman visits to patrol and roughs them up, degrading their self worth.
To feel invisible in society can grow into feeling disposable in a society.
A major accomplishment.