Theater review

You could write a graduate thesis about “Pass Over,” Antoinette Nwandu’s tight, lyrical, painful and beautiful 2017 play about two black men literally trapped on a battered city corner, their fantasies about how to find an exit, and the two white visitors (a snarling cop and a golly-gee-shucks guy with a linen suit and a picnic basket) who come to call.

But nothing beats hearing it, soaking in the musicality and texture of the men’s language, in a room full of other humans — especially in the round, as it’s currently staged at ACT, where you can watch other audience members’ faces and desperately wish for the telepathic power to eavesdrop on their internal monologues. Like its source material “Waiting for Godot,” the play is mostly talk (what else can you do when you’re stuck?) in a place Nwandu, with her characteristic spare poetry, describes as “a ghetto street. a lamppost. night/but also a plantation/but also Egypt, a city built by slaves.” And that talk, plus the poignant bond of love between the two men, is acutely, forcefully alive.

Treavor Lovelle (left) and Preston Butler III, on a set by Julia Hayes Welch, in “Pass Over” at ACT. (Chris Bennion)
Treavor Lovelle (left) and Preston Butler III, on a set by Julia Hayes Welch, in “Pass Over” at ACT. (Chris Bennion)

Nevertheless, I suspect some bold doctoral candidate is currently straining her eyes somewhere in front of a laptop right now, trying to do intellectual justice to Nwandu’s fiercely brainy, and fiercely visceral, play. (The nine-word version of this review, if you’re in a hurry: There’s volumes to talk about; just go see it.)

“Pass Over” gives that student plenty to work with: its gorgeous, high-voltage use of language; its indictment of American racism, both brutally overt (in the form of police brutality) and the subtler, but no less sinister, complacency of feel-good white liberalism; its roots in “Waiting for Godot” and Exodus; the way happy and squirrelly Kitch (Preston Butler III) and more brooding and profound Moses (Treavor Lovelle) ricochet from gleeful clowning to urgent, existential despair and back again; its shifts between sandpaper-rough realism and Old Testament magic; and its opportunities to let critics flop on their faces, exposing their own clumsiness and blind spots.

Treavor Lovelle (left) and Preston Butler III in “Pass Over,” Antoinette Nwandu’s lyrical and haunting new play at ACT. (Chris Bennion)
Treavor Lovelle (left) and Preston Butler III in “Pass Over,” Antoinette Nwandu’s lyrical and haunting new play at ACT. (Chris Bennion)

The Chicago Sun-Times review, for example, sparked a theater-world firestorm after critic Hedy Weiss complained the play was “wrong-headed and self-defeating” in its portrayal of the racist cop instead of focusing on “black-on-black” crime, as she put it in a New York Times interview. (A petition requesting Chicago theaters to stop giving her complimentary tickets gathered over 3,500 signatures.) The day before Weiss’ review, blogger Katy Walsh used the n-word in her review, originally titled “The N-Word Is Nwandu,” but amended it and apologized after an outcry.

That brings us to the n-word itself, which appears 260 times in the 84-page script, including the characters’ short-lived resolution to stop using it in an attempt to leave the block they’re stuck on — following the example of the linen-suit white man (in a chillingly smiling performance by Avery Clark) who’s just passed through and learns, among other things, what “po-po” means. (“Po-lice/white man/po-lice,” Kitch clarifies with careful enunciation to make sure the white man understands. Throughout the script, Nwandu writes more or less phonetically and with no punctuation, only line breaks.)

“White [n-word]/don’t say it/and po-po don’t be/killin his ass/in cold blood,” Moses argues about his proposal to stop saying the n-word. “So maybe/maybe/we stop sayin dat [expletive]/dem po-pos do come thru/[n-word]/they ain’t gon know iss us.” Kitch thrills to the idea, and it almost works.

Almost.

“Let me be crystal clear,” Nwandu writes at the top of her script. “Aside from the actors saying lines of dialogue while in character, this play is in no way shape or form an invitation for anyone to use the n-word. Not during table work, not during talkbacks, not during after-work drinks.”

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The spare, distilled precision of Nwandu’s language (and her notes about how to use it, from the line breaks to the careful handling of incendiary words) give “Pass Over” much of its undeniable potency.

“She’s created an awareness, a nuance around the word with all its shades of meaning, its complexity, its history,” said Tim Bond, head of the graduate acting program at the University of Washington and director of this production. “It’s a poetic device with more political and social power rather just being used casually as the way people speak. The play touches on some deep and touchy areas right now  it’s an extraordinary poem.” Extraordinary enough that Spike Lee filmed the Chicago production for Amazon Studios.

Then there’s her comedy, which sometimes dares majority-white audiences — and the audiences at ACT are largely white, Bond said, as they were at the performances I attended — to walk that prickly line between laughing-with and laughing-at.

Bond points to one moment in particular, when Moses and Kitch play their daily game of “promised land top ten” (listing all the things they dream of once they “pass over” and get off the block) and Kitch says he wants a penthouse with lobster rolls, cold Champagne and caviar. “Yo/you like fish eggs?” Moses asks. “Naw my [n-word],” Kitch says disgustedly. “Caviar!” Moses smiles: “Man caviar is/fish eggs!” The audience, Bond said, laughs every time. But are they laughing with Moses or at Kitch?

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“It is a funny moment,” Bond said. “But there are laughs, and then they [the audience] realize: ‘Oh, it’s funny, but it’s also not funny that it’s like that.’ There’s a double edge, a lot of the audience feeling implicated in the play, which I find really interesting. In a different city, a different theater, people might respond to it differently.” No matter where it’s performed, Bond said, “Pass Over” is ultimately about the men’s persistence in finding some love and jubilation between each other, if not from the rest of the world. “They’re not up there crying in their soup about the conditions they’re in,” Bond said. “They’re finding humor and joy in their situation, which is an incredible part of African American history and experience.”

Treavor Lovelle, Avery Clark and Preston Butler III (left to right) in Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” at ACT. (Chris Bennion)
Treavor Lovelle, Avery Clark and Preston Butler III (left to right) in Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” at ACT. (Chris Bennion)

The performances are very good, but unfortunately (and it’s painful to report), they do not yet feel as full and lived-in as they could be, though there’s every reason to want to love them. The material is intense and exhausting and, on opening weekend, the actors still seemed like they were muscling their way through the play. One hopes that will change as the run progresses.

Still, Nwandu’s material is so rich, it might be performed 20, 40, 80 years from now, anywhere where race and borders (whether walls or redlining) disfigure human relationships. While “Pass Over” unquestionably puts contemporary U.S. racism front and center, it also percolates through timeless, bedrock questions of how people wrestle with the idea of dignity and freedom when they’re trapped by power, both hard (police) and soft (elites who like to think of themselves as the nice guys).

In some ways (and I’m risking my own critical face-flop here), arguing that “Pass Over” is only about two African American men in 21st-century America feels as reductive as saying “Waiting for Godot” is only about two homeless dudes in post-WWII France. Beckett saw war-blasted countrysides and nuclear threats, and set his play there. Nwandu sees brutal U.S. cityscapes and sets her play there. Both plays are about their bleedingly real environments — and more.

“I do think Beckett was responding existentially to the question of: ‘How do we go on and remain hopeful in this time?’ ” Bond said. “‘Pass Over’ is an incredible reviewing of that idea with particular poignance for African Americans, with the cosmic joke that even if you empower yourself right now, can you really escape the vestiges and poisons of racism in this country? It’s very hard to explain to anyone not in that situation, not under that boot. But I hope people see that the joy from these characters, the indomitability of their spirit, is really an act of resistance.”

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“Pass Over” by Antoinette Nwandu. Through June 23; ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $27-$47; 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org