In Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, two young black men, Moses and Kitch, play a game called "promised land top ten." While sitting under a lamppost on a corner identified simply as "a ghetto street," the duo pass the time by listing the ten things they'd like to see in paradise. Among them: collard greens and pinto beans and a bright red Superman kite, but also, a brother back from the dead. The threat of violence, specifically from the police, is ever-present in Pass Over, and paints a chilling portrait of what it means to live as a young black man in America today. Though they dream of paradise, Moses and Kitch cannot leave their street corner.
The play, which draws from both Waiting for Godot and the Exodus saga, is now in performances in the Claire Tow Theatre in a production from LCT3. Danya Taymor, who helmed the world premiere in Chicago last summer, has returned to direct.
We spoke with Nwandu and Taymor about their collaboration, and the 10 key moments that led to Pass Over debuting Off-Broadway.
1. The Trial of Trayvon Martin
Nwandu is working full time as a teacher at Manhattan College in 2013 when news coverage of the trial regarding the death of Trayvon Martin begins to stir up feelings of anger and sad recognition. “I was interacting with a student body that, demographically, looked a lot like the kinds of people who were being targeted,” says Nwandu. “I was a cauldron of anger and bewilderment, as well as the cyclical nature of history.” That, combined with a motivation to investigate the theatre cannon and ideas of ritual, were the seeds for Pass Over.
2. Taymor Reads an Early Draft of Pass Over
When her agent, who also happens to represent Nwandu, gives Taymor a copy of Pass Over in early 2016, she has a “visceral reaction” to the play. “The thing I responded to most in the play was the rhythm of the text. It has its own architecture; it pulls from a number of different references while being wholly original,” says Taymor. “I also felt that the playwright had a strong point of view and I was interested in how I could interpret that.”
3. Their Mutual Agent Sets Them Up on a Blind Date
The assumption that the two will have plenty to talk about is spot on, and a coffee turns into a two-hour discussion about Pass Over and their shared love of theatre.
4. Pass Over Joins Steppenwolf Season
In March 2016, Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf theatre announces it will present Pass Over the following May as part of its 2016–2017 season. A director is still TBA.
5. Pass Over Workshop in NYC
The play receives a workshop production as part of Cherry Lane Mentor Project in April 2016, directed by Tea Alagic with Nwandu receiving mentorship from Katori Hall.
“There’s an interesting moment in the career of a young director where you get really close to a lot of projects and the reason you don’t get the job isn’t because the playwright doesn’t respond to you or your ideas, it’s because they haven’t seen your work,” says Taymor.
Despite them not collaborating on the workshop staging, Taymor and Nwandu continue to nurture a collaborative relationship, and in June, the two head to Philadelphia’s PlayPenn to develop another of Nwandu’s plays titled Flat Sam, which is then presented as part of Colt Coeur’s Parity Play Fest reading series in New York. They also work on her piece Tuvalu or The Saddest Song as part of Nwandu’s residency at Ars Nova.
6. Liesl Tommy Signs On, Then Pulls Out of Pass Over in Chicago
Tony-nominated director Liesl Tommy signs on to helm the world premiere of Pass Over, but three weeks before heading into production, is forced to pull out due to scheduling conflicts. Nwandu’s first phone call is to Taymor, but will Steppenwolf takes a chance on a young director without the equivalent experience? Thanks to some glowing, high-level references, Taymor gets the job.
7. Rehearsals and Re-Writes
During rehearsals at Steppenwolf, Nwandu finds herself in a “turbulent writing process” in which the script for Pass Over undergoes rigorous and major re-writes, continuously and all the way through tech. “I had tried to do that prior to rehearsals, but it needed to happen in collaboration,” says Nwandu. “I learned to trust that the writing I had done beforehand was good preparation. I also learned to be in a place where there was no time for second guessing or fear. It felt like a great leap.” Over the entirety of the play’s development, Nwandu will write seven major drafts and over 90 minor drafts.
8. The World Premiere
Pass Over opens at Steppenwolf Theatre where it inspires a number of important conversations within the Chicago community, among audiences and critics alike. Both Nwandu and Taymor invite a number of friends, colleagues, producers, and artistic directors from New York to the Chicago run, though in the end, only a small amount of people are able to make the trip. Among those who do, is Evan Cabnet, artistic director of LCT3. Shortly after seeing the show, he asks to program it in Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theater as part of the 2018 LCT3 season.
9. Spike Lee Calls Nwandu
After the Chicago run concludes, Oscar-nominated director and producer Spike Lee reads the script to Pass Over and personally invites Nwandu out to dinner to ask her if he can film a re-mount of the production. Five weeks later, Pass Over is secretly filmed at Steppenwolf and is later edited and released as a film on Amazon Prime. “It’s a dream come true except I did not even know that dream existed,” says Nwandu.
10. The show’s Off-Broadway Premiere
A new production of Pass Over opens Off-Broadway on June 18, receiving glowing reviews. The cast is made up of Tony winner Gabriel Ebert, Tony nominee Jon Michael Hill, and Namir Smallwood.
“I was so thrilled with what we did in Chicago but I’ve never had the chance to re-visit my own work,” says Taymor, who was excited by the opportunity to try something new. Technically, the production is different, as well as the context in which it was created. “The moment in which we were working on the play last June is a very different moment from the one we're in now….We attacked the play in a different way. I think last year, a lot of the country was still in a state of shock from the election, whereas now there is some space from that moment. The reality of how this will impact the trajectory of the country and the world is sinking in. I think that affects the consciousness of all the collaborators working on the play.”
“This is my professional debut in New York, ten years after I graduated from grad school,” says Nwandu. “It feels great, and there’s a sense of completion.”
Performances of Pass Over are scheduled to run Off-Broadway through July 15.