As coronavirus crept across the country last March I left a performance of West Side Story, sensing that it would be a long time before I reentered a theater.
The West Side Story revival won’t be returning to Broadway. But I did, last week, a year and a half after my last visit.
On Tuesday Broadway celebrated the reappearance of Hamilton, Wicked, and other blockbusters, with more to come. Theaters began their cautious reopening in June, with a return engagement of Tony winner Bruce Springsteen and his show leading the way, and thus far everything is running smoothly after the unprecedented chaos of last year.
It is of course different. Audience members must show proof of vaccination and a photo ID before entering a theater, and wear a mask throughout the performance. At the August Wilson, I then had to go through an airport-type scanner, the sort of “war on terror” holdover that theaters seemed to be relaxing before the pandemic hit. To digress: someday the masks will come off and the war on coronavirus will be declared won, but the hangover from the “forever wars” won’t be as easily cured.
Anyway…I was okay with it all (I learned long ago to empty my pockets as much as possible and not not to bring bags to the theatre) and, no, I didn’t “double-mask,” as a friend warned that I should do. Here in New York City vaccination rates are high, the coronavirus transmission rate is low, and within reason I’m trying to live my best covid life. I was briefly confounded when my glasses fogged up before the show started, but the usual blast of cool air took care of that when Pass Over began.
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s play is a blast of fresh air on Broadway, not just the first new show to open since March 2020 but the first of seven Black-themed productions due in, along with a number of smaller, more intimate, more “Off Broadway”-type pieces. The Phantom of the Opera it’s not, and from time to time the (mostly) two-person show felt small on a large stage. However much it lacks big scenery, though, it has big ideas, and this season should provide interesting answers to the perennial question “what belongs on Broadway?”
Originating at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Pass Over has passed through a few incarnations, including a film version that Spike Lee directed for Amazon in 2018. It’s not easy to synopsize, but the intermissionless 95-minute show has three distinct movements…maybe. It starts as an adaptation of Waiting for Godot, with two Black men, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood), bantering on a barren city block whose decor is borrowed from Beckett’s minimalist vision. It doesn’t take long to realize that their humorous volleys, punctuated by repeated blasts of the “n-word,” conceal their desperate fear of leaving their tiny roost, lest the police kill them for imagined crimes. With precise, even synchronized movements the two actors wring as much as they can from the terrible comedy of the situation, and Kitch’s recollections of his dead relatives, slain by cops, are intensely moving.
The show next slides into what could be considered fairy tale mode, with a white savior godfather inexplicably materializing onstage. White-clad, whiter-than-white, impeccably liberal Mister (Gabriel Ebert, a Tony winner for Matilda the Musical) is looking for his mother’s house in this hellscape, and brings with him a bottomless picnic basket, from which a famished Moses and Kitch partake. (How this is achieved is one of the lighter moments of the show.) The two men don’t know what to make of their cheery, guileless visitor, and we’re never sure if the well-intentioned Mister is Little Red Riding Hood or the Big Bad Wolf. Harping on the discordant note he brings to the production Ebert then rematerializes as the angry, brow-beating Ossifer, the realization of Moses and Kitch’s shared nightmare about the “Po-po”…and Pass Over passes over into its final, Biblical-ish phase, which has been augmented for this staging.
Set designer Wilson Chin, lighting designer Marcus Doshi, and sound designer Justin Ellington pull out a few stops and we see more of two of the actors then we figured as a rebirth takes place but somehow we’ve lost the thread. The stage notes, listing four time periods and five settings, seem like Nwandu pulling our leg–or reminding us that the oppressor and slave relationships between whites and Blacks are eternal, and terminal. I left the theater feeling confused; the show gives you something to talk about in our era of police brutality, but these Black lives seem to matter more at the top of the show, where the playwright and director Danya Taymor carefully, cunningly reveal the agony behind their false bravado and nonchalance. Or maybe the mess of changing environments and unchanging circumstances is the point. Perhaps the point is simply to go with it, as Broadway and the American theatre clamber back to life, and do their job.