Monday, March 2, 2020

REVIEW: LUNA STAGE’S “PASS OVER” STUNNINGLY ADDRESSES RACISM HEAD ON

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By Ruth Ross

March 2, 2020

With its combination of Waiting for Godot, a plantation story and the Biblical Exodus narrative, Pass Over is hands down one of the finest dramatic pieces I have seen in my 24 years of reviewing.

Written by Antoinette Nwandu and directed by Devin E. Haqq, this 2019 Lortel Award-winning play is receiving a powerful production at Luna Stage, a local Equity theater long known for pushing boundaries and making audiences think.

Image may contain: 2 people, people sittingThis time, the topic is racism, America’s five-century nightmare, presented in-your-face by three characters: black youths Moses and Kitch, and a white character portraying Master and a policeman. Over 90 minutes, the terror experienced by Moses and Kitch at the hands of the police is palpable; from time to time, the two drop and hide as if to escape the notice of the Popo (as they call the cops) who often come into the ghetto neighborhood (actually a street corner) to harass the youths who gather there. Even when a lost, seemingly benign, overly polite white man—dressed in a white suit and shoes, spouting “golly gee” and leaving them food—appears, the feeling of menace is unmistakable.

Image may contain: 1 personKevis Hillocks (right) and Robert Barnes (left) splendidly portray Moses and Kitch, respectively, as they pass their interminable—and eternal—internment on a spare but evocative trash-strewn, graffiti-decorated urban street corner designed by Joo Kim and atmospherically lit by Cameron Filepas. The two talk smack, curse and call each other “nigger” as they spin plans “get up off this block” and make it to the Promised Land where they hope to find “soft sheets” and “collard greens and pinto beans,” among other such pleasures. The more sophisticated of the pair, Moses longs for caviar while Kitch is scared to leave, lest the Popo set upon them. Hillocks and Barnes deliver Nwandu’s dialogue naturally and convincingly; while such coarse talk can be off-putting for most middle-class audiences, it feels especially natural for this setting. Hillocks performance reaches a zenith as he “becomes” Moses, bringing down plagues on Egypt’s Pharaoh and talking about the “milk and honey” he and Kitch will find once they step off the block to make it to the Promised Land. The slave spirituals chosen by sound designer Scott MacDonald make clear the connection between the youths, their slave ancestors and the Jews escaping Egypt by “passing over” and escaping their ghetto prison.

Woodrow Proctor is equally as fine in the unsympathetic roles of Master and the Cop, appropriately uncomfortable as the former, lost en route to “Mother’s” house and intimidating as the latter. At first, naïve young Master feels like someone from another planet; he comes from a world of white privilege, where people say “gosh” and “golly” and think “nigger” is a word not to be uttered. When, later in the play, as he imperiously swaggers onstage again in his white attire, transformed into a slave owner, we stop giggling and realize that he’s now in charge and will, ultimately, bring doom to the proceedings. As the Cop, he violently roughs up the young men as he frisks them for no reason and steals from them what little they have. That Proctor can inhabit these two different, yet similar, characters is a testament to his talent.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that Nwandu and Luna Stage have created a suffocating atmosphere of hopelessness experienced by these two black youths—a metaphor for the experiences today of black men who, because of racism, have had their opportunities stunted (or made nonexistent) and their spirits crushed. Barnes’ recitation of black men shot by police underscores that dilemma.

I will warn you, however, that you will feel uncomfortable by the coarse language spoken by Moses and Kitch. Their use of “nigger” is affectionate and baiting, but it’s okay if they use it. Such talk lends credence to the lack of education, the paucity of experience, the dearth of ways to express their dreams and yearnings.

True to its motto, “Illuminate your world,” Luna State is known for pushing its audiences out of their comfort zones, forcing them to observe—nay, inhabit—life from another’s point of view. With Pass Over, they’ve done it once again, affording us the opportunity to experience racism, the better to understand and combat it. Long may Luna Stage continue to perform this important public (and dramatic) service.

Extended until March 8, Pass Over will be performed at 555 Valley Road, West Orange, next Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM. For information and tickets, call 866.811.4111 or visit www.LunaStage.org online.