WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Although I had been warned by the sign at the front door—CAUTION: LOUD GUNSHOTS—I still started, pretzeled my arms into my chest, when the trigger was finally pulled. I sat, head buzzing, as the murderer monologued for the final two minutes of the play. The lights went down amidst audience mumblings, then I stood clapping with the room while the actors bowed. My chest was tight with anxiety all through the talkback, the drive home, my pre-bed face wash; even now, I can easily picture the muzzle flash. If art’s job is to affect individuals, then Pass Over deserves a raise.
I must confess that I didn’t do my research before seeing this play: once we got to ACT, my plus one quickly brought me up to speed on the rave reviews Antoinette Nwandu, Pass Over’s playwright, had received for the piece. Pass Over featured two young men at a street corner trying to get to the “Promised Land,” interacting both with one another and other characters; some called it a mash-up of Waiting for Godot and The Exodus. I was skeptical: a play about two guys waiting by a road had never seemed like my cup of tea, and I’m not religious. So as the audience filed into their seats, I watched the two men onstage—one sleeping on the ground, the other punching a graffitied lamppost—and settled in for the long haul.
Thankfully, the play defied my low expectations. Over the next eighty-five minutes, I was immersed in the lives of two young black men, Kitch (Preston Butler III) and Moses (Treavor Lovelle), as they cursed, bantered, and messed around. They were clearly close, as their excellent bro-handshake proved, but as the play progressed, little gestures like the sharing of a jacket, a joking “kill me now” from Moses countered with a finger gun and “bang bang” from Kitch showed that the pair were more like family. I felt like I was witness to two individuals, unlike the common media portrayal of black men as criminals: Kitch, with his Tigger-like enthusiasm, and Moses, steadfast and solid, both united in their goal of getting off their block. Sadly, however, the two characters never left the stage, their dreams boxed in by the intermittent gunfire and police brutality haunting their neighborhood.
The first white man in the show, holding a genuine picnic basket, entered about halfway through the play, souring the playful mood. Even though, when he first reached into his jacket pocket, Kitch and Moses dove to the ground expecting a gun, this man innocuously wore a bowler hat: in my mind, he was clearly not someone to fear. Yet, there was something subtly sinister about him, down to the way he spoke and phrased things: “If I hadn’t gotten turned around, I wouldn’t be out here at all.” He seemed to ooze pretentiousness. When his name was revealed to be Master, and when he tried to say the n-word, that’s when I thought: I know this beast. I’ve seen how they fumble over their words, trying so hard not to say the wrong thing that they say nothing coherent at all. I’ve seen their grating condescension. So I was thankful to see this ball of white fragility pack up his picnic and leave.
If the spirited energy of the room had cracked slightly after Master left, the second white man, a police officer, Ossifer, completely shattered it. Where Master was submissive, this man was overt. He forced Kitch and Moses to stand, arms where he could see them, reminding them they were going nowhere. Not satisfied with humiliation, he repeatedly called them racial slurs and stole their food. The two men collapsed, spent, once he left. Ossifer came back later in the play to beat Moses and Kitch with his baton. So when the police officer pulled out a gun, Moses cursed him with plagues in a divine twist, sending him offstage dripping black goo from the mouth. Kitch cheered. The pair had “ended racism.” At least the racism perpetuated by their oppressor.
Then, right as Kitch and Moses were about to celebrate their newfound freedom by leaving the block, Master arrived again, his affectations even more off-putting than before. And then he reached into his picnic basket. And then he—bang bang—shot Moses.
This was the worst shock: it wasn’t Ossifer, the overt racist, that killed anyone, but the “hidden” racist, the guy-next-door type. Throughout my life, I’ve found that some of the most wholehearted support for racism comes from people who believe they are doing the right thing. In my experience, when a white person has no significant contact with people of color, they can become obsessed with appearing “socially aware,” creating conversation filled with the delicate choosing of “correct” words. While police brutality is real, Nwandu shows that the more deadly system lies with individuals who believe they are helping others, but often end up solidifying a racist paradigm. (If you’re interested in learning more, check out White Fragility by Robin Di’Angelo.)
Pass Over is a play that recognizes that audience demographics for the arts skew white and directly confronts these individuals, prompting them to reexamine their own beliefs. During the talkback, a white friend of mine cried because of the show’s events, devastated that Moses’ death was more impactful to her than the many tragic deaths seen in the media. Maybe this was because over the course of the play she got to know Moses intimately. I know that, because of Seattle’s subtle racial segregation, that was the case for me. I don’t have many black friends; I do not know much about the African-American experience. But while art’s job is to affect, its supplementary duties include challenging current understandings and showcasing new perspectives—Pass Over does all that and more. In fact, I think it’s about due for a promotion.
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