A harrowing ‘Pass Over’ powerfully performed at Studio Theatre

Two young Black men on a street corner seek "the promised land."

There is a drama on stage right now at Studio Theatre—Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu—so harrowing it will stop your heart. In it, Christopher Lovell and Jalen Gilbert give two of the most powerful performances to be found in the DMV. The intense experience of Pass Over is followed by no curtain call for release. The audience is left to absorb the impact of what just happened.

Pass Over is set under a lampost on an inner-city street corner where two young Black men are hanging out—Moses (Lovell) and Kitch (Gilbert). Moses aspires “to rise up to my full potential / be all I could be / you feel me? / I got plans to get my ass off this block.” Kitch, inspired by Moses, wants to join him on the journey. Together they imagine (with authorial echoes of the Exodus story) what it would be like to “pass over” into “the promised land.” And yet (in grim reminiscence of Waiting for Godot), they don’t leave; they remain where they are.

Christopher Lovell (Moses) and Jalen Gilbert (Kitch) in ‘Pass Over.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

We get viscerally why they stay. At the first of several points in the play when nearby gunshots explode, Moses and Kitch instinctively dive facedown to the ground, their hands above their heads: This is their everyday life. They are besieged by white police who are killing Black men to keep them in line. They live in fear for their Black lives. Their stasis has a history. It is racism’s PTSD.

Moses and Kitch pass time amusing themselves with games and in playful verbal sparring—a poetic barrage of crude street slang that includes near nonstop use of the n-word. They are not literally brothers, but between them is a b-boy bond, with overt aggression and coded affection as two sides of the same chump change.

In the interplay between their bodies in motion and brisk riffs of speech, there emerges a heightened performance style that absolutely stuns with originality and eloquence. Director Psalmayene 24 has done something extraordinary: Lovell and Gilbert so physicalize the text’s every rhythm, breath, and pulse that we could be beholding some brand-new form of choreopoem.

Christopher Lovell (Moses), Cary Donaldson (Mistr), and Jalen Gilbert (Kitch) in ‘Pass Over.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

A third character enters: a prim white man dressed nattily in light tan suit, bowtie, and straw hat (Cary Donaldson). He carries a picnic basket and exclaims “Gosh, golly, gee!” He got lost on his way to his mother’s. His name, he tells them, is Master. “Everything is mine,” he lets them know. He is both absurd cartoon and all-too-real symbol of the white power Moses and Kitch are always up against, even when it’s benign.

The fearsome force of that power materializes when an armed white cop enters (Donaldson again). He demands to know where Moses and Kitch are going. “Nowhere,” they answer. He browbeats and insults them. He demands that they self-identify as “stupid / lazy / violent / thug.”

After the cop is gone, they wonder aloud, “What if po-pos [the police] keep coming back and we never get up off the block?” As though in mournful reply, they recall the young men they knew who were killed by po-pos. The recitation of those names is wrenching.

Debra Booth’s spare urban set is backed by girders and broken concrete. Stuffed teddy bears propped by Deborah C. Thomas are tied to the lampost, a memorial to Moses’s murdered brother. Megumi Katayama cues up mordant, melancholy music and jolting gunfire. Moses and Kitch are dressed for the street by Brandee Mathies in hoodies, caps, and distressed jeans, while the two white characters are suited up for prerogative and privilege. Night passes into day and back into night under subtle, incremental light cues by Keith Parham such that we sense time pass and stand still all at once.

Christopher Lovell (Moses) and Jalen Gilbert (Kitch) in ‘Pass Over.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

For Moses and Kitch, the American Dream is out of reach. A metaphorical apple pie is literally taken from them. Their hopes keep getting crushed by hate. In a moment of despair, they consider passing over into heaven by their own hand. Then Master has the last word.

“You hear me?” and “You feel me?” are refrains throughout, questions Moses and Kitch keep asking for comprehension and connection. They are questions the whole play asks as well. Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over at Studio Theatre not only must be seen. It wants to be heard by an honest mind and felt by an open heart.

Running Time:  Approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.

Pass Over plays through April 12, 2020, at Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-332-3300 or go online.

Community Tour
In addition to performances in the Metheny Theatre, Studio will take a complete dramatic reading of Pass Over to intergenerational audiences throughout the DC-metro area. Facilitated talkbacks will accompany the reading to help audiences process the play and explore the context of Nwandu’s work with more depth. The Pass Over Community Tour will visit:
• Duke Ellington School of the Arts (3500 R Street NW)—April 1, 2020, at 8pm
• Howard University’s Environmental Theatre Space (2455 6th Street NW)—April 8, 2020, at 11am and 7pm
• Anacostia Neighborhood Library (1800 Good Hope Road SE)—April 15, 2020, at 6:30pm
• Shaw Neighborhood Library (1630 7th Street NW)—April 16, 2020, at 2:30pm
• Joe’s Movement Emporium (3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier, MD)—April 18, 2020, at 2pm and 8pm

 

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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