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The Unique Tension of ‘Pass Over’ in a Public Park

A new Philadelphia production offers a timely, often disconcerting look at Antoinette Nwandu’s play about police violence, soon headed for Broadway.

Jerald Raymond Pierce of American Theatre

I was fully expecting this production of Pass Over to feel jarring. Of course that’s partly because of the weighty content of Antoinette Nwandu’s play, but also because this was going to be my first in-person theatre production in over a year and a half, which came directly on the heels of my first time on a plane in even longer. But what I wasn’t prepared for was a production that challenged me and the where’s the gritty realism aesthetic that has been sewn into my soul as a Chicagoan, and which was immediately challenged by the outdoor location: This production by Theatre in the X and Theatre Exile (running through June 27) sets Nwandu’s play not on a street corner but on a platform in the corner of Philadelphia’s beautiful Hawthorne Park, surrounded by very nice apartments and condos.

Something about seeing this beauty and knowing the pain that was to come in this play felt wrong. Arguably, a portrait of two Black men in any setting who are just trying to live their lives and find a path to a better life while faced with the persistent racism of policing ought to feel wrong. But something about this level of civic beauty—a stark contrast to the grittiness of Steppenwolf’s 2017 world premiere in Chicago, which Spike Lee attempted to capture in the filmed version for Amazon Prime—served to remind me that this play is headed for the glitz of Broadway in just a few months.

Asked after the performance why they chose this particular park, Carlo Campbell (he/him) and Walter DeShields (he/him), co-artistic directors and co-founders of Theatre in the X, explained that the pandemic-necessitated move outside actually offered them a chance to bring art to a neighborhood that was near and dear to their hearts. While Theatre in the X is a West Philadelphia-based company, and Theatre Exile is based in South Philadelphia, where Hawthorne Park is located, DeShields is also from the South Philly area.

“I was born in these projects,” DeShields told me. “To kind of come back here—the neighborhood is much different now than it was back then in the ’80s and ’90s. But I performed in this park before. It’s a return of sorts. And to think about the folks who lived here and died here.”

There’s a deep history here, both for Black men and Black artists, DeShields explained. The park itself is situated a short walk from Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, a school that housed talent like Boyz II Men and later members of Roots, Questlove and Black Thought. “It’s good to come back into these communities, and this one especially, and put work like this up,” DeShields concluded.

Like many productions that are finally going up in the coming months, this production of Pass Over faced fluctuating dates because, to borrow a phrase from Campbell, COVID kept COVIDing. When the announcement came that the play was headed for Broadway in August, the Philly producers initially feared that their rights might be revoked. Indeed, Nwandu has mentioned in an official statement that the Broadway production will feature a new version of the play that “centers the health, hope, and joy of our audiences, especially Black people.” This new version, she went on, envisions the story as one where Moses and Kitch “both survive their encounter with white oppression.”

It’s an idea I’ve been tossing around in my head for a while, both as I rewatched the filmed version of the Steppenwolf production and watched this production in Philadelphia. I had always experienced Pass Over with a sense of dread from the very beginning of the play, rooted in a fundamental distrust of Mister, a supposedly kindly white man who stumbles into the “wrong” neighborhood. This Philadelphia production, directed by Ozzie Jones (he/him), challenged that fear in the pit of my stomach, as he approached the play with a lighter tone.

Jones told me that what he loved about the play was that it’s not overly grounded in realism. As he looks at the theatrical landscape, he said, he sees a lack of opportunity for Black people, especially when working with weighty subject matter, to play with form, philosophy, style, and technique, instead always being expected to focus on grit and realism. As Jones later explained to me, he trained in the Black Arts movement, following the work of Ntozake Shange and Amiri Baraka, who played with form while also talking about real things happening in the community.

“I’m really happy that I got to direct something where I got to fuck around, try things,” said Jones. “I love the humor in it.”

Nwandu’s play, Jones said, challenges the idea that “gruffness” equates to seriousness. He made the point that comedians like Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle have proven time and again that honest conversations can (and maybe should) happen while people are laughing. It’s an idea that harkens to the oft-quoted but confusingly attributed George Bernard Shaw quote: “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” (It’s a quote that Pryor himself referenced.)

So as part of the rehearsal process, Jones said he had actors Jared Chichester (Moses) and Davon Johnson (Kitch) watch things like Abbott and Costello, vaudeville, and other 1940s-era comedy to find the right patter and rhythms for Nwandu’s spin on a Waiting for Godot-type situation.

What was fascinating about the resulting production was that while this style of comedy seemed to lessen the weight of the subject matter, the design—including the environment the play was set in—put all of that tension right back in. Originally strictly for functional reasons of being outside in a city like Philadelphia, the production gave every audience member a pair of headphones to be able to hear the mic’d-up actors. But drawing inspiration from trends like silent discos, Jones saw an opportunity to mix the sound “like a record” and use it to help tell the story.

This step included adding effects to actor voices at key moments, like adding a tinny quality to Kitch’s voice when he “calls” for room service. More starkly, though, the production meshed the voice of Mister/Ossifer (David Pica) with a demonic effect—an effort to show the character’s “true voice” breaking through his menacingly kind facade. Jones related it to Men in Black, in which an alien crashes to earth and puts on an “Edgar suit” made of the skin of someone he killed—a suit that doesn’t quite fit right, coupled with a voice of something not quite human.

Included in Melissa Dunphy’s sound design were ever-present sirens, realistic enough that I and many other would pause for a moment to lift one side of the headphones or turn the volume knob down just to see if there were actually police on their way.

“I hope that they feel the policing of the state when the sirens that they hear are framed in this way,” said Jones. “Hopefully, if people really pay attention, they should see the framework of what a perpetual siren sounds like.”

The result created a tension similar to other productions of the play: a constant fear and sense of inevitability that something could go wrong at any time. Adding to this unease was the persistent knowledge that this open park created a welcoming environment for anyone in this neighborhood to walk by. In fact, at one point in the latter half of the play, a white man walked by the upstage left side of the playing space just as Ossifer was approaching Moses and Kitch. The man paused and pulled out his phone camera.

It’s tough to say what he was thinking in that moment—after all, the actors were wearing microphones, and a few dozen of us were sitting watching them—but for a moment my chest tightened. Many people involved told me they tensed at this moment, including Theatre Exile’s producing artistic director, Deborah Block, and Gregory Walker (he/him), global creative director of the Brothers’ Network, which served as an associate producer for the production. As Walker said to me later, this constant fear of things potentially going sideways at any moment is the kind of psychological trauma that threatens Black men all the time.

“I was surprised and worried as the associate producer that passersby might see this show—because it is outdoors with access—and people might think that these two men were having an argument in real time, and they might call the police,” said Walker. “I heard a police siren in the headphones and I wasn’t sure if it was on the stage or if it was in real time.”

(For the record, there was an actual police siren in the distance toward the end of the play. The two sounds were indistinguishable.)

Even as I sit here now, this play and production leave me conflicted. It’s easy to agree with thoughts Block shared with me, wishing that this play weren’t still so relevant while also appreciating the need to produce plays that punch you in the gut and make you think. But it’s complicated, as Campbell noted, because the ability of a play like this to compel conversations must be balanced with the very strong desire to not contribute to the trauma porn that continually follows the news of Black death in the U.S.

Perhaps that’s part of why Nwandu wants to revisit her brilliant play. When her play premiered in Chicago in 2017 (and was published in this magazine in 2018), we had already lived through the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014, Freddie Gray in 2015, and Philando Castile in 2016, among others. As painfully consistent as this problem has been in this country, the conversation and the weight it puts on the shoulders of Black people has shifted and accumulated.

“I think we have to continue to beat the drum so that people recognize that this is a real thing,” said Walker. “The murders of Black men in unprecedented numbers is really not that much different from the times of enslaved people. We just now have video to record it. Black people have always had to fight for the right to just exist, the right to vote, the right to live, the right to congregate.”

So perhaps this is the absolute perfect time for Nwandu’s play to head to Broadway: to take the next iteration of this conversation to a sector of the field traditionally occupied by rich white folks. Thanks to the efforts of many activists across the field and country, people are seeing the problem of racist police violence more clearly than ever, and, as DeShields speculated, this new awareness may have helped propel this show to Broadway at last. That’s not to say that Nwandu’s work wouldn’t have wound up there anyway. But just as this play cut through the distractions of a public park in Philadelphia, I have no doubt it will cut through the glitz of a Broadway stage and have a critical, lasting impact.

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