The first play to open on Broadway after the Covid pandemic shut everything down is now the first play to open in Memphis that directly confronts the city’s recent violence. The arrival to Circuit Playhouse of Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over could not be more timely.
With Biblical overtones from the Exodus story and clear connections to Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, the story centers on two young Black men, Kitch and Moses, who are hanging out on a street corner, a nowhere place, and dreaming of escape. Their emotions roll down like oil. And repeatedly, they pick each other up.
A white man, Mister/Master, has a chance encounter with Kitch and Moses. Totally clueless as to where he is and who he has run into, Mister/Master offers food from a bulky picnic basket. An abundance of food is set before the hungry young men and spread on a red and white checked tablecloth.
The scene reminded me of my own experience in the summer of 1993, when I was doing an internship at a house for the homeless in Atlanta. I was a seminary student, a white woman learning about poverty, racism and social injustices. One day I was assisting at the food line, directing hungry people into the dining area, holding people back when there were no seats available and moving people forward when others finished their lunch and left the room. One large Black man with a booming voice had no shoes. He demanded that I get a pair of shoes for him and I was delighted to be of service, knowing that we had several pairs of men’s shoes in the clothes closet. I asked him for his shoe size and took off running.
I returned with a nice pair of leather loafers, just the right size. The man exploded with fury and threw one of the shoes back at me with full force, hollering, “I can’t wear these shoes. What you think, I’m going to some fancy office party?” He walked away barefooted as I rubbed my side where the shoe had hit me and wondered what on earth could make a person so ungrateful. I had to learn that people on the street need comfortable shoes, tennis shoes, not loafers. Pass Over places a mirror in front of my face and has me confront my white privilege, shows me why Kitch and Moses resist eating Mister/Master’s food, why they avoid being openly grateful even after they succumb to their desire to eat what the white man has offered them. It’s a meal, but it only makes them hungrier for what is out of their reach, angry that they are forced to accept what the white man offers.
The playwright has said in a July 2021 interview with New York’s Vulture Magazine, “I was writing to poke the audience in the ribs.” The play was written in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and is a wakeup call to audience members, exposing the reality of white police officers and everyday citizens killing African American men and women. The police officer, Ossifer, who harasses Kitch and Moses, asks them two questions: Who are you? Where are you going? The only acceptable responses to the menacing white man are humiliating answers spoken while on their knees with their hands behind their backs. I am nobody and I am going nowhere. These answers satisfy the officer.
Marc Gill as Moses and Cleavon Meabon IV as Kitch offer outstanding performances. The story has tension that kept me on edge from the moment the lights came up on those two. Their lively and heart-wrenching performances are unfaltering. Both roles, Mister/Master and Ossifer, are played by Nathan McHenry. Both roles come across as cartoonish, and as such, a bit unbelievable, by design. Directed by Jared Johnson and Claire Kolheim, the play does what the playwright intended. It is a poke in the ribs and a wake-up call to the cost of racism and poverty and the damage done by the complacency of the privileged.
Playwright Antoinette Nwandu has written three versions of Pass Over, inviting local theater companies to use whichever script they feel most reflects their community in the present moment. Each script presents a different outcome. For the Playhouse production, director Jared Johnson said of the version they chose, that “I feel (our choice) is the correct version for this moment in Memphis, where violence and safety have become high-priority issues. From Young Dolph’s murder to Eliza Fletcher’s senseless kidnapping and murder, or the active shooter a few weeks ago, there have been several high-profile violent killings happening in our community. It is important to look deeper at why and examine why our attention wanes so quickly as well. Are we de-sensitized?”
Pass Over, Jared says, “raises questions and asks us to think. Though this story centers around Black experience, violence is still universally unacceptable. I hope that audiences see themselves, see friends, and ask Why not me? Why not see these threats as universal threats to our humanity? Accepting violence for one is accepting it for all; we have to defiantly abhor it all. I hope our (script) decision resonates as there is still work to go to make sure folks see each other, folks give humanity to folks who don’t sound like them, and more importantly we see all victims of violence as victims.”
These recent killings have prompted those and other questions all over Memphis. “What could make a person so angry? What would make a person so crazy?”
For those people who asked these questions, Pass Over offers a glimpse into the frustrations and hopelessness of our neighbors in disinvested communities. While neither Kitch nor Moses owns a gun and while neither of them threatens to shoot up and shut down a city, they do take us into their world where we feel the profound sadness every time one of them proclaims, “We gonna get up outta here. We gonna get to the Promised Land.” We feel the invisible walls closing in on them. We’re left to wonder what part each of us plays in building those walls.
Elaine Blanchard is a writer, social activist, and ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination. She moved to Memphis in 1994. She and her wife, Anna, are proud Midtown Memphians.
ABOUT PASS OVER
Pass Over opened September 16th and runs through Sunday October 9th.
Emotional and lyrical, audiences are taken on a journey in the typical day of Moses and Kitch. Two men on an inner-city corner, hoping that this day might be different from the others. As a stranger wanders into their space with his own agenda, their plans may be forced to change. With shades of Waiting for Godot, Pass Over is a politically charged and beautifully provocative piece of American Theatre.
Starring Playhouse on the Square Resident Company member Marc Gill (A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, Smokey Joe’s Café) and Cleavon Meabon, IV (Smokey Joe’s Café), Pass Overconfronts harsh inner-city life in a way that challenges audiences to find the character’s humanity. Making his Playhouse on the Square directorial debut, Jared T. Johnson has chosen to focus on the relationship and care Moses and Kitch have for one another amid the hardship and systemic barriers that have subjected them to their current situation. Johnson also predicts the story of Pass Over will resonate with a Memphis audience. “Memphis is a place to tell stories like this. This glimpse into the lives of Moses and Kitch will hit home with a lot of Memphians.”