A theatrical look at race in America
Out with the old and in with the new! As 2020 kicks in, it’s that time of the (new) year when Boston’s theater scene leaves behind the Christmas, family-friendly shows and moves on to explore the deeper, more complicated themes that we all yearn for after a season of nonstop shopping and eggnog drinking.
In that spirit comes Pass Over, a co-production between SpeakEasy Stage and the Front Porch Arts Collective, Boston’s newest and only professional black-led theater company, with its New England premiere running Jan 3 through 25, at the Roberts Studio Theatre of the Boston Center for the Arts.
Written by New York-based, award-winning playwright Antoinette Nwandu, Pass Over tells the story of Moses and Kitch, two young black men looking for ways to pass the time while hanging out on their local street corner, dreaming of a better life, when a stranger enters and changes their world forever.
“I think quite directly the play touches on racism in America and how that affects the lives of black men,” says Hubens “Bobby” Cius, who is making his debut with SpeakEasy Stage playing the role of Kitch in this production of Pass Over. “It talks about white supremacy and systemic racism, and everything that’s entailed in that, from police brutality to gentrification to just feeling that there’s always something out to get you: feeling like you’re stuck and there’s no way to get ahead.”
Conceived as a mashup of Waiting for Godot and the Exodus saga, Pass Over combines elements of the theater of the absurd movement with a present-day examination of the systemic problems that affect black communities and particularly young black men in America.
“It’s really an exploration of what these young men dream of, and how do they respond to different experiences they have that continue to tell them that those dreams are not really possible for them. Even the simplest desires that they have cannot be achieved because of systemic oppression and intergenerational experiences with inadequate healthcare, inadequate education, lack of access to wealth and opportunities,” says Monica White Ndounou, who is also making her SpeakEasy debut as the director of this production.
Since it first premiered in Chicago in June 2017, the show has received positive feedback from the public, and it was made into a film by Oscar-winning writer, director, and producer Spike Lee and released on Amazon Prime. It also won the 2019 Lortel Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play, after debuting in New York in June, 2018.
The play is not without controversy, however, as it deals with racism, police harassment, and police brutality, and contains strong language, including frequent use of the N-word, both as an expression between two black friends and as a racial epithet.
“The play is written stylistically like that, as artistic creativity, but also realistic. I think there are places in the world where black people do speak like that,” Cius says. “Every word that can raise an eyebrow in the text are words that I use. [It] is part of my everyday language based off of the environment that I’m in.”
The actor explains that, from his point of view as a performer, the language is central to the identity of the characters: a construction made out of different influences and experiences that ultimately condition who they are and how they interact with their environment.
“Everything from how they move and how they talk is coming from all those different sources and so a judgement on them is really a judgement on their community, a judgement on where they come from, and a judgement on all the people that have impacted their lives. I think that is unfair to the characters and it’s unfair to the people in the world that live similar lives,” Cius says.
Pass Over also addresses the notions of whiteness and the deep-rooted configurations of power that to a great extent define the relationship between white and black people. These elements are mostly embodied in the characters of Mister and Ossifer, both white men who reference the idea of an ever-present white gaze, always watching, always lurking over these black young men.
Kadahj Bennett, a graduate of Hamilton College and the Boston Arts Academy who plays Moses in the show, describes the character of Mister as someone who chooses to be blind.
“I don’t see that being just happy ignorance. He has the ability to learn and know about these things,” Bennett says. “It’s always elsewhere, it’s always other. It’s always not concerning him, because he has the ability to make it not concerning him, which is a big American thing, when we can make something not concerning you. We live in a very individualistic society. And Boston is a beautiful representation of that. If you are black and brown you live in certain areas, and if you are other group you live in other area. Which it’s kind of ridiculous but it’s kind of super segregated.”
For White Ndounou, the context of the Boston area also gives this production a special significance.
“In many ways it is harder to have conversations around race and racism in the Northeast [of the US] and part of it is that in this region a lot of people believe themselves to be sort of beyond race and racism, or that these things are not really a problem here,” White Ndounou said. “They aren’t looking at the ways in which the Boston area is also very segregated.”
At a time when there’s debate across America on how the country should grapple with its history and with the legacy of slavery, Pass Over invites the audience to reflect on the potential of their actions and the structural changes that are needed to address racial disparity in America.
“My hope is that productions like this not only spark conversations but to encourage action that really addresses the structural racism that we see is impeding the progress of people who may share experiences like Moses and Kitch’s experiences,” White Ndounou says.
The director emphasizes that there is still a need to acknowledge the cycle of violence against black people—the structural and intergenerational pattern that to this day prevents social mobility and limits access to healthcare, education, and wealth for people of color.
“Our society works by design through interlocking systems of oppression but that does not mean we have to accept things as they are. In fact, the survival of our nation depends on repairing the damage caused by these systems even as we overhaul them,” White Ndounou says. “When future generations look back on this moment in our history I hope they will be proud of how we chose to act rather than suffer the consequences of our inaction.”
Pass Over runs through 1.25.20 at the Roberts Studio Theatre of the Boston Center for the Arts, located at 527 Tremont St. Tickets can be purchased at speakeasystage.com/pass-over.