Those familiar with Samuel Beckett’s magnum opus, “Waiting for Godot” will immediately recognize the dramatic setting presented in Antoinette Nwandu’s absurdist tragedy “Pass Over.” Set “now, right now / but also 1855 / but also 13th century BCE,” the radio play features two men standing, eating, talking about nothing in particular and awaiting something that never comes to pass. Nwandu, however, adds a pivotal new dimension to the theatre of the absurd through his integration of the poignant and painfully relevant realities of racism and police brutality.
We the PROUD, We the People Representing Our Unifying Diversity Polycultural Productions, is a polycultural student organization here at the University. Their radio play “Pass Over,” presented via YouTube, serves as the final product of a semester-long investigation into the play, primarily focusing on the themes of police brutality, racism and the importance of everyday Black narratives. School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior Miguel Aviles-Elrod and LSA senior Bryce Foley star as both Moses and Kitch, switching roles from night to night to accurately encapsulate the multitudes their respective characters contain.
The play opens with Moses and Kitch standing on the block of an unnamed ghetto, from which they hope to escape. The two are shown counting the ten wishes they will receive when they “pass over” into the promised land. This grocery list of dreams spans everything from collard greens and pinto beans to the return of a brother from the dead.
Their shared dream of getting off of the block is inextricably intertwined with an ever-looming fear of death, which Nwandu illustrates through the constant surveillance of the “po-po,” or police, who were responsible for the murders of dozens of Kitch and Mo’s friends. He illustrates this through the foreboding and repeated stage direction “Moses and Kitch flinch.” They flinch as if to look out for some invisible threat, which, at some point or another, will be their undoing.
As they shoot the breeze, dream of passing over and flinch at the prospect of “po-pos” lurking in the shadows, Moses and Kitch encounter an eerily chipper white man by the name of Mister (although he later asserts that his true name is Master). His golly-gee attitude and faux-politeness immediately come across as unusual, if not downright threatening. He offers Kitch and Moses the contents of a picnic basket he meant to bring to his mother, which the proud Moses refuses but the affable Kitch accepts with relish.
School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior Nathan Correll plays both the enigmatic Mister and the menacing cop Ossifer, the only two white characters in the play. Nwandu’s seeming conflation of these two characters serves to highlight both overt racism, exemplified through white supremacists and their organizations, as well as the clandestine prejudices of supposed “well-meaning” white liberals. It blurs the lines between the anti-racist and the assimilationist, and invokes discomfort in white audience members, like myself, without alienation.
School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior and Director Samantha Estrella exercises a choice in medium that is unexpectedly brilliant, as it captures the dismal Beckettian backdrop while adding an element of surprise facilitated by the lack of visual overstimulation. The efforts of LSA senior Ty Doll, who is the sound designer and engineer, fail to go unnoticed as they create an auditory experience that is as cohesive as it is visceral.
The play relies solely on the gulps and grunts of the actors to illustrate their hunger. The script is displayed on screen as the actors speak, affording the audience an opportunity to process the script both visually and audibly. The inclusion of stage directions adds a key dimension to our interpretation of the work — Moses and Kitch’s quiet flinches and nervous shuffling add to the pre-established aura of paranoia and surveillance.
“Pass Over”’ differs from its inspiration “Waiting for Godot” in a manner that both contradicts and footnotes its predecessor. Nwandu’s piece draws from the Black Lives Matter movement, the Bible and Beckett, culminating in a multifaceted work that screams not only the importance of Black life but its fragility as well. Hope and hurt are laid bare on the stage to form a painful parable that Black audience members are tired of retelling and too many white audience members are weary (or rather uncomfortable) hearing. It begs the questions, who truly deserves the right to be “tired” of bigotry, and to what extent is this fatigue merely a byproduct of our indifference?
It is the weariness of privilege, perhaps, that makes this play particularly disconcerting for the white onlooker. We watch white privilege rear its ugly head in a manner that ultimately proves deadly. In an era of performative allyship and the ever repeated “I’m not racist but …,” perhaps this is a much needed rude awakening.
Ultimately, “Pass Over” handles nothing with kid gloves. It is an excellent actualization of Beckett in practice. Nwandu captures the humor and pessimistic nature of “Waiting for Godot,” while simultaneously and bluntly laying forth the daily realities of racism for the audience to contemplate and experience vicariously through his masterfully crafted characters. As a lifelong Beckett enthusiast, I was pleasantly surprised by the endeavors this creative team undertook in order to preserve the soul of “Waiting for Godot” in addition to clearly communicating Nwandu’s statements on racism.
In lieu of the price of admission, We the PROUD encourages patrons to please consider contributing to their fundraising campaign for BIPOC-led organization The Bail Project. Check out this website to listen to the 1/17 recording of “Pass Over” starring Miguel Aviles-Elrod as Moses, Bryce Foley as Kitch and Nathan Correll as Mister/Ossifer.
Daily Arts Writer Darby Williams can be reached at email@example.com.