‘There’s Still So Much to Unearth’ in ‘Pass Over’
The first play performed on Broadway in more than a year imagines two Black men striving to get off their block. “yo kill me now,” one says …
The first play performed on Broadway in more than a year imagines two Black men striving to get off their block.
“yo kill me now,” one says.
“bang bang,” the other shoots back.
“Pass Over,” a taut riff on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and the Book of Exodus, unfolds on a cosmic carceral plane. Jokes help pass the time, and daydreams distract from the threat of police violence.
The production, which starts previews on Wednesday, will be the first play to begin performances on Broadway since theaters shuttered in March 2020. And the first by a Black playwright, Antoinette Nwandu, to be performed at the August Wilson Theater, named for the pre-eminent chronicler of 20th-century Black life. It is also one of seven plays by Black artists that will premiere on Broadway this year, in what may be a response to vigorous grass-roots advocacy for greater diversity and equity in the industry.
“It’s nerve-racking, exciting and honestly an honor to be the first ones,” said Namir Smallwood, a watchful and reserved Newark native who is making his Broadway debut. (Bruce Springsteen revived his concert-style show, “Springsteen on Broadway,” in June.)
Smallwood plays Kitch, a genial and relatively naïve beta to his fiery companion, aptly named Moses, played by Jon Michael Hill, a Midwesterner with a hair-trigger smile. Hill also starred in the play’s world premiere in 2017 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, a production that was filmed by Spike Lee and is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Both men originated their roles Off Broadway at Lincoln Center the following year.
“Pass Over,” which also marks the Broadway debuts of Nwandu and the director, Danya Taymor, is starting performances at an unprecedented moment. The pandemic remains an evolving threat. (Proof of vaccination and masks will be required for all Broadway audience members, at least through October.) And the play arrives on the heels of a re-energized movement to confront police brutality and systemic racism.
“Art at its best challenges people to look at something differently,” said Hill, a Tony nominee for “Superior Donuts.” “It can be an impetus, as well as give a glimpse of what could be.” Nwandu has promised a revisions of her bleak ending, one that spares Black audiences, in particular, from the trauma of witnessing another tragedy.
Prone to roughhousing in rehearsal and finishing each other’s sentences, Smallwood, 37, and Hill, 36, first met at Steppenwolf 10 years ago and both studied acting at Big Ten schools. In an interview after a recent rehearsal in Manhattan, they discussed the personal cost of performing the play, how its context has changed over the past year, and what they hope audiences glean from it. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What has your mental and emotional experience been, playing these roles?
SMALLWOOD My first time doing the play three years ago, I was always on edge and it took me a while to come down after rehearsal and performances. I would walk outside Lincoln Center, and there would be a line of N.Y.P.D. officers with assault rifles just standing there. My body would immediately react like, “OK, I have to go home.” It’s really great that we have a stipend for mental health this time around, to get massages or do anything to decompress. We all need it, because we have to go to a very scary place every day and we have to be able to come out of it.
HILL I’ve heard actors say, “Your body doesn’t really know you’re faking.” There are things we have to do in the play that crack something open. I’ve noticed after some performances, the vulnerability hasn’t worn off. You have to find different ways to come back to the level every time. Sometimes I get home and it’s hard to move forward — like, “Oh, I have to cook dinner now, I guess.”
So much has happened since you first performed this play together in 2018. How does it feel returning to these characters in the context of the pandemic, and following the so-called racial reckoning ignited by the murder of George Floyd?
HILL The play has been poignant every time we’ve done it. I remember Philando Castile was killed the year before we premiered in Chicago. Eric Garner before him; there are so many people that we’ve had to watch get taken. Coming back to it, there was no question of, “How am I going to find my way in?” It was like, “No, we’re still here, there’s still so much to unearth, so much to purge, so much to investigate.” It’s just as relevant, unfortunately.
SMALLWOOD I basically became an adult in Minneapolis, and I was stopped by the cops three times, just walking. I had guns almost drawn on me once. When George Floyd happened it was like, that literally could’ve been me. That’s the fuel I’m bringing underneath Kitch, and how terrified he is. And it’s still happening outside the theater. We’re mimicking the never-ending existential crisis that we seem to be living in.
How do you feel the context for the story has changed in terms of how audiences may respond to it?
SMALLWOOD I would like for people to really understand that we are living in plagues right now, and have been for quite some time. How much does the world have to suffer before people think, “Oh, god, maybe we do need to change something. Maybe we do need to treat each other differently.” I hope it inspires people to confront their fears, which are deeply embedded by our circumstances, whether that’s color, sexuality, gender, or whatever else.
HILL We self-impose all the lines that separate us.
SMALLWOOD If we can confront our fears, then we can actually see our common humanity.
In previous iterations of the play, Moses is killed. Nwandu has said that the character will live in this revision, out of respect for those who have experienced enough trauma. Does changing the end alter the meaning of the story?
HILL We are still hearing about a plague of Black men dying in this play, I think the reality of that remains true. The new ending is supposed to be Afrofuturistic, an imagined world that none of us know. It’s an incredible gesture, because it’s trying to capture our potential, our best selves and what could be. The core of the play will still be there, because it’s about the journey of these guys —
HILL That’s really what it’s about, and how you pull yourselves out of the lower depths when you’ve exhausted all your options. That human resilience.
SMALLWOOD It’s about creating the life that we want to live, and the people we want to be.
Nwandu has said that, particularly with the revision, the play is speaking more directly to Black audiences. What do you hope they see reflected onstage?
HILL Their humanity, our humanity. Black people have been living with that specific tragic story forever. I love the gesture that Antoinette is talking about, making the play for a Black audience and not putting them through the tragedy in that way. I hope we can give them some gut laughs, and find a level of intimacy that’s inspiring to our people.
SMALLWOOD I want them to give themselves permission to just be, to just come with whatever they bring to it and see themselves in it. Because every Black person knows Kitch. They know Moses — whether it’s their son, nephew, grandson, or best friend. They know. Just to bring their whole selves, because that’s what we have to do every day.
The production is working to cultivate a diverse audience. But historically, Broadway theatergoers are majority white. How does it feel to perform this play for white audiences, and what do you hope they take from it?
HILL Antoinette traffics in stereotypes with a purpose in this play. A lot of times, if it’s an all-white house and we’re getting laughs, you kind of think, “Are we reinforcing stereotypes that half of these people already hold in their mind about us? Or are we actually playing with that idea and flipping it on its head?” You just can’t really say. But I do feel this story is important for white America. We’re telling this story with each other as best we can. And if they get something out of it, wonderful. That’s what we hope for.
“Pass Over” is the first of several new plays by Black artists opening this season. Do you feel there may be undue pressure on these shows to prove the viability of Black stories on Broadway?
HILL I’m always wary when there’s a wave like this. It seems disingenuous. We all know that we’re still in the middle of the pandemic. If these shows don’t perform well, and you take away that Black shows don’t do well, that’s a you problem. We’ve seen globally in the film and TV industry that Black stories do very well when they’re given the resources. So that is a myth. I’m rooting for everybody Black on Broadway.
SMALLWOOD I think it’s great that it’s happening in this way. It feels like a throwback to the Black Arts Movement in the ’70s and late ’60s. A lot of Black people are making their Broadway debuts. We’re all going to do our thing because we have the opportunity, and we’ve been knocking on the door forever, it seems. If racial politics is the impetus? OK. Joke’s on you because —
HILL We’re here now.
SMALLWOOD And we ain’t going nowhere, and we’re all going to really make the best of this moment.
HILL It just leaves me with that question of, is the Broadway community committed to sustaining that representation long term? That has yet to be seen, but we’re certainly going to be celebrating everybody getting this opportunity.