Pass Over review – fiercely relevant and compelling

Kiln, London
Antoinette Nwandu’s powerful absurdist urban tragedy sees two black homeless men – cowed by the ever-present threat of police brutality – pursue their own American dream

Antoinette Nwandu wrote Pass Over partly as a response to Trayvon Martin’s shooting but it was also inspired by Waiting for Godot and the biblical Book of Exodus. Alongside this, the play aims to show “black Americans wrestling with the dregs of the American dream”.

An Old Testament story of faith in deliverance from slavery together with Beckettian nihilism and contemporary race politics are epic – and almost opposite – themes to grapple with in an 80-minute play, but Indhu Rubasingham’s production combines all the elements in this absurdist urban tragedy to electrifying effect.

Two black homeless Americans, Moses (Paapa Essiedu) and Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache Jr) spend their days waiting, not on a country road under a tree like Vladimir and Estragon, but on a grey street corner of an unnamed city. As they wait they feel cowed by the ever-present threat of police brutality and reduced by encounters with white men.

Moses and Kitch wear their baseball caps backwards and behave like pastiche versions of young black men, hamming up their street mannerisms (elaborate handshakes, hip-hop swagger) and urban patter. They have playful flights-of-fancy and speak of “passing over” into a life that is not defined by police persecution, indulging in fantasies of ordering caviar and Cristal champagne from hotel penthouses.

Words form part of their knowingly racialised performance: they use the N-word emphatically. By contrast, the outwardly decorous speech of a white stranger called Mister (Alexander Eliot) is full of concealed bigotry and redacted offences.

Wholesome, all-American manner ... Paapa Essiedu and Alexander Eliot.
Wholesome, all-American manner ... Paapa Essiedu and Alexander Eliot. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Essiedu and Eustache Jr have an easy chemistry and endow their characters with vulnerable, boyish charm as they play fight or revel in make-believe.

We feel their baiting when Mister emerges, offering them food and hamming up his own wholesome, all-American manner with repeated exclamations of “gosh, golly, gee”. In its best moments, Nwandu’s script builds its dread with feeling, rather than dialogue. There are also sudden swerves into unsettling surrealism and outright terror before the tone resets back to comedy. Almost every gearchange works to powerful effect: anxiety roves around between the humour, and tonal lurches leave us feeling increasingly queasy for these men’s fates. The switches are masterfully managed by the actors, with a sensational performance by Eustache Jr, who bursts with mischievous energy, while Essiedu plays Moses more plaintively.

Easy chemistry ... Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr in Pass Over.
Easy chemistry ... Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr in Pass Over. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Just as Anna Deavere Smith’s play Notes from the Field spoke directly to America about white-on-black violence, Pass Over does the same. It touched nerves when it was first staged by the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago where some complained about the depiction of a racist white police officer, Occifer (also played by Eliot). But despite this specificity, it carries resonance for British audiences in its exploration of black masculinity and racism, which seems particularly urgent in light of Dave’s performance at the Brits.

The script begins to speak its messages in the last third of the play, which sound all the more jarring because the dialogue has been so artful until then. But it snaps back to surrealism and regains its symbolic strength by the end. Robert Jones’s set adds to this use of symbols: unlike the all-seeing eyes on the billboard that hang over F Scott Fitzgerald’s American dream novel The Great Gatsby, a traffic light sign looms over the lives of Moses and Kitch, commanding them to “stop” in the shape of a raised red hand. It is abject shorthand for the nihilism imposed on to their black American dreams.

Pass Over is theatre for the heart and head, reinventing and complicating old stories to make them newly and fiercely relevant. If, in these times, we are ever more in need of powerful and provocative political theatre, here it is.

• At Kiln, London, until 21 March.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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