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Spike Lee's Film of the premiere production of Pass Over
— .Antoinette Nwandu's Godot -inspired play in which Vladimir and Estragon morph into Africn-American Moses and Kitch.
By Elyse Sommer
The countless distinguished thespians who have opted to wait for that elusive salvation since 1953 have found that their somber, and at times comic, musings about their plight keeps speaking to audiences — especially so in troubled times, of which we've had no shortage.
The many Godot productions have included quite a few ultra-timely ones that took advantage of the play's universal story about outliers isolated in a corner of the rest of the world, hoping against hope that a savior will indeed show up and take them to a brighter, less hostile place.
Obviously, African-Americans are all too familiar with this sense of isolation and hostility from the more powerful population. And so, a Godot with an African-American cast is not new. One of the bravest examples of this was the Classic Theater of Harlem's production set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Instead of a desolate patch of land with a single tree, its two bedraggled leads are desperately hoping to be rescued from the rooftop of a building in their flooded ghetto neighborhood. (For more about that production read the Curtainup review here. For reviews of some other productions reviewed by CurtainUp, type Godot into the enhanced by Google search box).
The play's themes have continued to gain significance over the years. What's more, its characters became known beyond the more elite cultural landscape of the theater which resulted in spoofs at TV's Sesame Street and in the Doonesbry comic strip.
No matter how ground-breaking the casting and shifts in thematic focus, it's always been Vladimir and Estragon who ruminate on their plight, and the mysterious Pozzo and Lucky who pass by and stay for a visit. Not so Pass Over.
While playwright Antoinette Nwandu is certainly indebted to Beckett, Pass Over is not a new Waiting For Godot production that she dared to rename. Beckett's script and characters are her inspirational source. But clever and theatrical as the use of Becketian biblical and absurdist flavored storytelling is the accounts of black men being mistreated and even killed are what triggered her vision for her own Godotesque tragi-comedy.
Beckett's scared and angry, yet hopeful and playful tramps are now two young African-American men, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker). Their home is an eerily deserted urban street corner and the tree of the source work's only prop is now a street lamp. Nwandu's heirs to Vladimir and Escagon still go through their daily wishful thinking routines, but their conversations are now in the ungrammatical lingo of the urban ghetto. In the two days we spend with them, Nwandu turns their homeless present into the latest phase of people of color's entrapment in a society that still hasn't shed its racist roots.
Lee filmed Pass Over when it was still in its premiere production at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater. True to his skill with the camera, he made it an immersive record of the play's impact on its audience. He begins with images of people headed for the theater and later captures their reactions to some scenes while positioned in back of the stage.
Since the play's two subsequent productions at Lincoln Center's Claire Towe Theater and Broadway's August Wilson Theatre all had different endings, the movie now at Amazon Prime is also a confirmation of this play's special fluidity — a fluidity that drastically changed our lives and attitudes in just the short time between productions, as well as the feeling with which the playwright wanted to leave its current audience.
The physical set-up and plot was in place in Chicago, so the movie stands on its own as a great opportunity to see a play already in good enough shape to be worth seeing. Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker are already terrific enough to understand why they're continuing to portray Moses and Kitch. It's with the other two charscters that Nwandu cut the cord with Beckett's playbook Instead of Pozzo arriving with his slave Lucky, we now have an apparently friendly man called Mister (Ryan Hallahan) arriving several times by himself. Ossifer (Blake DeLong) is a more ominous version of Lucky and also arrives separately.
As it turns out, these completely reimagined Becketian men are what gives Pass Over its own bona fides as a powerful theater work of our time. By the time they've made their last appearance, you'll realize that they have more in common with Pozzo and Lucky than you thought.
Arriving as he does, with a basket of food for his mother instead of a slave-drawn wagon Mister may have in common with Little Red Riding Hood than a slave master That is until an animated discussion about the "N" word that Moses and Kitch use constantly but that Mister later claims is his, says otherwise. As for their treatment by Ossifer, it's clear that Mister's forbears made actions by men like the brutal cop possible. That's why the decision to have one actor play both characters when the play moved to New York was a smart way to underscore Mister and Ossifer emerging as two sides of the same coin.
As the characters' names have more than one meaning, so does the title. For Moses and Kitch, to pass over means getting off that street corner to an unspecific promised land. For still emerging playwrights, the promised land is Broadway. And Pass Over is now playing in that promised land, the only new play so far to invite audiences to return to live theater. Apparently all who've seen it like that it's more hopeful about the possibility that all of us can finally pass over to a true promised land. Here's hoping that enough people will buy tickets so that Moses and Kitch to be able to stay in that promised land for their complete scheduled run .
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Play by Antoinette Nwandu
Filmed and directed by Spike Lee/Danya Taymor(collaborating director)
Cast: Jon Michael Hill as Moses, Julian Parker as Kitch, Ryan Hallahan as Mister, Blake DeLong. as Ossifer
(Note: In the New York productions the Mister and Ossifer characters were consolidated and both played by Gabriel Ebertb)
Running Time: 75 Minutes (Note: The Broadway production is 20 minutes longer to accommodate another new ending).
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