Redemption in a Rewrite
New York magazine|August 2 - 15, 2021
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over is the first Broadway play to open post-lockdown—and she’s determined to land it on a high note.
Jackson McHenry

AT THE FIRST REHEARSAL for what will be the first play to open on Broadway since the start of the pandemic, the team members of Pass Over are gathered in a midtown dance studio psyching themselves up. Director Danya Taymor kicks things off with a speech: It’s been three years since the Off-Broadway run, and many of them are returning from that production. They’ve always done the play in the summer, she points out, and always during the NBA Finals. “So we’re right in the pocket,” she says. “This project always attracts what it needs and always gives us just enough time to do it.”

“Oh, does it!” interjects Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, Pass Over’s playwright and producer, looking up from her Sweetgreen salad. There’s laughter. They have a whole lot to do this time around. After all, Nwandu is changing the play’s ending.

This first rehearsal is on July 7; on August 4, Pass Over will start previews at the August Wilson Theatre in its—and Nwandu’s—Broadway debut. The show, which Nwandu has staged in different iterations since 2016, tells the story of two Black men on a street corner, blending the clowning humor of Waiting for Godot with the biblical tale of Exodus and requiring only three actors—an advantage at a time when the entire cast and crew need to spit into vials for covid-19 testing every few days. Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood) entertain themselves with wordplay and games and talk about a promised land to which they might “pass over,” if and when they can leave the corner. Preventing that journey are two versions of whiteness, both played by Gabriel Ebert, that descend upon them: the upper-middle-class Mister, who condescends to tell them to stop using the N-word, and the menacing Ossifer, a policeman. In previous versions of the play, Moses and Kitch never make it to the promised land—just when it starts to seem possible, Moses is shot.

“If I want to write a play about healing, I have to be honest about my own.”

This time around, though, Nwandu doesn’t want the story to build to the shock of Moses’s death but to emphasize the two characters’ hope and playfulness. “I just want everyone’s humanity to take up more time,” Nwandu tells the cast and crew. In these early rehearsals, the new version of the script doesn’t exist yet; the plan is to work through it in the room, teasing out where the actors—who played the same roles Off-Broadway—can modify their performances now that both protagonists will survive. In their first readthrough, with fans humming in the corners to circulate air, they revisit the 2018 version. “In the second act, I’m trying to find joy,” says Hill afterward, “but it is what it is.”

Playwrights often hone their scripts when their shows move to midtown. It’s rarer to revise with an eye to the current historical moment. After living through 2020, Nwandu decided she did not want to spend her time “rehearsing a play about a lynching,” did not want to put more death onstage. Her revisions aren’t the only result of last year’s upheaval. Although this production of Pass Over was in talks before covid, it will now be joined on Broadway by six other new plays by Black playwrights—likely a response to the demands of bipoc theater artists who last summer called for the then-shut-down theater industry to confront its systemic racism, commit to better representation onstage, and put more bipoc in positions of power.

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