Plenty of theater addresses the audience directly. That impulse, to acknowledge our presence, is fundamental to monologues. But in Pass Over—Antoinette Nwandu’s 2018 play, now running at ACT Theatre—the audience is addressed, implicated, before a word has been spoken, before the play has technically started. In ACT’s Allen Theatre the seating encircles the stage, and as a I took my seat on opening night, Moses (Treavor Lovelle) and Kitch (Preston Butler III) were already there, waiting on the spare set: a street corner in a big city. This play—about violence (cultural, spiritual, physical) against black men in America—was already happening, and we would sit here and watch.
Pass Over riffs on Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s 1952 absurdist classic in which two men wait on the titular and broadly metaphorical Godot to arrive (he doesn’t—get it?). The famous tree, often the only bit of stage scenery, here becomes a street light. Like in Beckett’s play, Moses and Kitch hang out. Kitch is a lively optimist; Moses is more contemplative. They banter in funny and exquisitely rhythmic dialogue. They discuss a promised land (Pass Over’s name is a play on the Passover in the Book of Exodus).
The pair in Beckett’s play, though, contends with the never-defined Godot, a fuzzy existentialism. Moses and Kitsch drop the -ism. What they wait on is literally existential and does arrive. They call this threat the “po-pos,” but it appears first in a different form: a genteel, gosh-and-golly white man (Avery Clark) in a light linen suit, carrying a picnic basket, who got lost on his way to his mother’s house. He offers them food that he says he grew himself ("like organic,” Kitch says, impressed). Initially he wins them over, then the turn: “Yo, Mister,” Moses says to him.
“Master,” he replies. “My name is Master.” Moses and Kitch stop eating. “Gosh, I’ve never—gosh," the man backtracks. "I’ve never heard it quite like that before. How awkward…. It’s just a name, a family name, so, you know, pass it down and pass it down.”
Eventually he leaves and the more explicitly villainous and abusive police officer, Ossifer, shows up—also played by Clark. That choice could land leaden, but this production is so assured, from acting to writing to directing, it works.
The play is not heavy on plot, but always feels charged because Nwandu is an expert with switchbacks. The jokes—and there are many, and they get laughs—sour in the room as the next line undercuts them. The action less rises than zigzags, building tension and complexity, toward jagged conclusion. Pass Over is about more than police brutality; it’s about the systems, the heritage, that foster that brutality, those who “pass it down and pass it down.” And it's about the humanity of those whom the systems fail.
Throughout the night—in an 80-minute production (no intermission, no break)—the audience watched not only what was happening on stage, but watched each other watching this. We were that night, like most nights in Seattle theater, mostly white. Probably none of us could see ourselves too easily in Ossifer, but many could in the seemingly kind man offering food. The production does not flinch at that fact. This theater in the round was a vicious circle.
May 31–June 23, ACT Theatre, $20–$40