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Broadway's 1st Play Since COVID Closure Blends Bible, Beckett, Black Lives Matter

Jon Michael Hill (seated) and Namir Smallwood star in <em>Pass Over, </em>the first play to return to Broadway since the COVID-19 closure.
Jon Michael Hill (seated) and Namir Smallwood star in <em>Pass Over, </em>the first play to return to Broadway since the COVID-19 closure.

Updated August 5, 2021 at 12:07 PM ET

On Wednesday evening, for the first time in almost 17 months, a new play began performances on Broadway. Called Pass Over, the play combines elements of Samuel Beckett's existential drama, Waiting for Godot, with the Exodus story from the Bible as it looks at two young Black men dreaming of a better tomorrow in a world of police violence.

"As an artist, I'm always looking to remix, collage," playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu says.

Waiting for Godot features two tramps on a blank stage under a tree – they pass their time playing games and waiting for a character who never comes. In Nwandu's play, the two central characters are named Moses and Kitch. They play their own games and trash talk, waiting on a city sidewalk under a streetlamp. They want a better life beyond the street corner, but they can't ... pass over.

As a Black American, do I say, 'Justice is coming, justice is coming, justice is coming?' Or do I say, 'Oh, my God, America is the largest plantation I have ever seen'?

Nwandu says she began writing Pass Over after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. Raised in the church and trained in the theater, she says, "I'm sitting here as an artist and I'm saying on one hand, I've got the Bible, I've got the Exodus story that I love. On the other hand, I've got Waiting for Godot. The Trayvon Martin case is happening in front of me. As a Black American, do I say, 'Justice is coming, justice is coming, justice is coming?' Or do I say, 'Oh, my God, America is the largest plantation I have ever seen'?"

Trapped by a force field of inequality

"Why can't these guys leave?" muses Jon Michael Hill, who plays Moses. "I sort of imagine it as a force field of redlining, income inequality, education inequality. What are the options?" There's also a police officer patrolling the block.

"There's this beautiful, constant tension in the play; like, is this guy Moses or is he a guy named Moses?" says Danya Taymor, who directed the play at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, where it was filmed by Spike Lee, and a small theater at Lincoln Center in 2018. She's also directing the Broadway version.

"You'll have the same question," Taymor adds. "And I think that young man is asking himself that same question."

Performing a play about plagues in the midst of one

Namir Smallwood plays Moses' sidekick, Kitch. "It was one thing to do this play three years ago and the world was still, you know, a little bit crazy, but now we're in the middle of a pandemic as well," he says. "So, things that we're talking about in the play, like the plagues and all that stuff, we're basically living in the plagues right now."

Then, in the midst of the pandemic, came the death of George Floyd, says Gabriel Ebert, who plays two white characters – a racist police officer and a rich man named Master who's wandered onto the block. In previous versions, the rich man kills Moses in the play's final moments.

"When we were doing it the first time, there seemed to be a sort of shock among white Americans, especially liberal, progressive white Americans, that how are these things still happening? And we wanted to wake up the audience," Ebert says. "Over the last few years, I think the events that have been captured on camera have woken up the audience, hopefully to a big extent, but I guess that remains to be seen."

Imagining new endings

So, for the Broadway version, Nwandu made the decision to change the play's ending. "I can't make an ending that I can't see in my mind," Nwandu says. "And while Trump was president and there was no vaccine and George Floyd was being murdered, lynched, I could not see another ending."

Now, Nwandu says things are different. "I can imagine an Afro-futurist ending of my play that exists within the bounds of the world I've already created, where this young Black man could actually live."

Pass Over is not only the first play to open on Broadway this fall – it's the first of seven that are written by African American playwrights. And Nwandu is not just the play's writer, she's also one of the producers. And in that role, she's determined to bring new audiences to Broadway. At each performance, during the show's run through Oct. 10, some of the best seats in the August Wilson Theatre will be available to first-time theatergoers for $39.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.