It’s a beautiful, multi-layered production of a potent, multi-layered script, artfully packed into an efficient 80-minute performance. So why was the overall result so unsatisfying?
Seventy-five minutes in, Moses and Kitch, the two Black male lead characters in Pass Over, finally find their power. It’s short-lived — not only because the play is only 80 minutes long, but because the script has other plans for them.
It’s a brief and passing few moments which, given the chance to play out, could have terrified the nearly all-White gaze upon them in ACT’s Allen Theatre in-the-round. For these two Black men, finding their power meant standing in the light: declaring they were neither stupid nor lazy nor violent nor thugs; and rendering the guns, sticks, and insidious orders from police all neutralized. It’s the point at which the audience gets to believe that the two Black men are finally free to chart their own course. They’re confident and determined; they’re adults, they’re human, they’re unleashed from their chains. It’s about time.
And then the oppressive Whiteness returns to take it all back again. The freedom is over. Well, that was fast.
Pass Over, by Antoinette Nwandu, is a powerful play, chiefly in that it mimics significant pieces of American and biblical history, and persistent and horrible layers of American present. But it’s a frustrating play in that it lands at a story that is more of the same: Black powers and passions and people themselves, neutralized. There’s no need to dream, it suggests. We all know how it ends.
For Nwandu (discussing the play with Natasha Sinha, in excerpts of an interview from American Theatre reprinted in the program), Pass Over is built upon “the sedimented layers of history,” in which particular historical identities rise up through the characters — the biblical Moses, for instance — in confronting a very real and racialized current America. It speaks, however briefly, to the joy when human bondage is snapped and freedom is realized. And it shows how quickly the cycle resumes to favor those who have long held societal power.
ACT’s production of it is beautiful, notably in the searing set design from Julia Hayes Welch, and in direction by Tim Bond that’s at once rhythmic and brash and bold. And of course there’s the acting: Treavor Lovelle (Moses) and Preston Butler III (Kitch) play the difficult roles with an easy, trusting, familiar rapport that feels just as much brother as friend. They’re contrasted by the invasions from Avery Clark, serving double-duty as the syrupy sweet wandering model of naivete and White Savior benevolence (uttering lots of “golly gee!” and looking ready for a Derby party), and as a narcissistic, brutal, shithead cop.
Bond’s vision in ACT’s production makes a strong visual use of metaphor, beyond even that called for in the script. Take the small token of the simple football, for instance: it’s tossed back and forth between the characters, despite being totally deflated; its shell is intact, but the life and vigor has been pulled from it, whether by force or by time and neglect. It feel suggestive, though not imposingly so, of the two leading characters. The set, an irregular broken concrete octagon, is deposited in the middle of the round; it’s a place that emanates a feeling of desertion, leaving the two men stranded there. And it’s animated by perennial movement confined by unseen forces, a constant flow that wants to escape the island. Only the White men are free to come and go. It’s a stunning, multi-layered visual approach for an already powerful, multi-layered script.
Age — of the lead characters — is an interesting factor here. White America has a tendency to prescribe adulthood early upon Black bodies, to infer malicious or salacious motives and impose grown-up responsibility at much-too-young ages. That could be one reason why Nwandu’s play writes younger Black men for the roles, playing characters in their late teens or early 20s, men but just barely. As Nwandu said of the characters (in the reprinted interview in the program), the two are “young men coming into their own who I would barely think of as adults in the first place.” They’re based loosely on real young men, those she knew as a teacher at Borough of Manhattan Community College, or inspired by the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. But ACT’s production uses older actors for the parts and, though they are tremendous, that sense of youth is missing. When the two men here talk about their far-flung dreams, which include luxury cars and caviar, it can feel less starry-eyed youth and more eye-rolling grown-up lottery fantasy. And when the two White characters find their way into the men’s island at different points, an adults-vs.-youth interaction would feel much different than this, a direct confrontation against men. To imagine them instead played by youth, it changes the narrative. It changes the feelings. A beautiful contrast may have been to cast two separate shows, one with these exceptional actors and another with teenagers for the two leads, and invite audiences to see both.
All in all, the production at ACT was compelling and beautiful.
It’s a shame they couldn’t give it a good audience to match.
It may well have been different if presented in an environment where the power of race is more balanced; where the audience has significant representation from people who are not White and, more precisely, had numbers of Black audience members who are in the majority or close to it. Then they’re not just characters being acted upon by White violence for White people to look down upon from their raked seats.
But ACT Theatre is not such an environment. And the majority-White audiences understand that.
However the majority of this audience felt on the inside — and it’s presumably a “sympathetic” one, given that it’s Seattle and there was a heavy sprinkling of standing ovation-givers at the end — it was nevertheless clear that this was playing out under White house rules. It’s the home-field advantage that makes it the type of place where a White male audience member could feel at home laughing audibly after the White cop on stage whistled at one of the Black men characters like a dog and called him n***** (the kind with the “R” at the end) as his name. It’s the kind of home-field advantage that allows a White man in the front row to happily chuckle when that same White cop took from the Black men one of their few immediate pleasures they had stashed aside to eat later. It’s the kind that allows another one to fall asleep, visibly and obviously, in the front row. (Yes, all three of these took place in the one performance I saw. The actors and direction aren’t the only things exposed with theatre-in-the-round.) It’s the kind that leaves one of few (perhaps only, at that show) Black women in the audience visibly disturbed with no clear “ally” to turn to.
And so, while I looked forward to seeing powerful works by strong Black women writers in both of these cases, ultimately I had the same problem with ACT presenting this show as I did with it producing Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood last year. It centers Black pain on stage for a virtually all-White audience to look down upon (or even pity), while congratulating itself for all the good diversity work it is doing. And then, perhaps, wonder (as an ACT Board member did aloud after Until the Flood) why more Black people don’t volunteer themselves up to watch these Black-written, -directed, and -cast plays — at a cost of their own money, time and energy — surrounded by White feelings and responses all around them.
There are several ways to deal with that institutional problem (which, no question, goes beyond ACT’s walls). One would be to present works showcasing Black brilliance and Black joy beyond Black pain. Another is to co-produce these challenging, socially critical works in a venue that is not ACT’s home turf. Another is to present them in a format and style that is “in the lap of” the audience, such that they can’t be removed from the picture, looking down on Black pain from a distance.
Ending as it does, without a clear call to action and in an environment where ACT’s patrons are barely nudged from their comfort zones if at all, it’s not clear what this play aims to do. And, for a play with this promise, that’s unfortunate.
(Author’s note: This writer, a White person, wishes to acknowledge Valerie Curtis-Newton, Malika Oyetimein, and Sharon Nyree Williams, whose generosity with their brilliance over the years — whether in personal conversations, post-show discussions on stage, or published interviews — has contributed to a developing understanding of poignant storytelling, audiences, race, place, and theatre. Their work is an ongoing testimony to the power of having Black Women Wisdom in positions of artistic leadership and decision-making. They were not consulted for this article specifically, and any shortcomings in it remain this writer’s.)
Pass Over runs through 6/23 at ACT Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets up to $47, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom on the second floor near the elevator (near the main upstairs restrooms closest to the Allen). Financial accessibility: discounted tickets are available, including pay-what-you-can tickets on Sunday nights; see info here. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.