Modelling itself on Waiting for Godot, Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over pays homage to the absurdist humour and relentless despair of Samuel Beckett’s tragicomic classic, but uses them to address a less abstract, more specific problem. It is not the meaningless of life that must be endured by her two protagonists, it is the immediate reality of being Black in North America. Under the austere yet playful direction of Philip Akin, Obsidian Theatre’s production is stark and piercing.
Passing the time on a lonely street corner, Moses (Kaleb Alexander) and Kitch (Mazin Elsadig) reflect upon their rut and dream of crossing over into the Promised Land—where they will be free of hardship, having escaped a traumatic cycle of poverty and violence. Humour abounds in the exaggerated luxuries they imagine, and poignancy in their humbler yearnings. The core of their fantasy remains consistent—a life that reflects their value, that isn’t burdened by systemic bigotry.
They can never quite relax into their shared aspirations. Their hopeful vision—to realize the American Dream—is haunted by the memory of murdered friends. And they are regularly interrupted—in what seems like sinister strategy—by the sudden glare of a police search light; it sends them to their knees, hands raised, whenever their escape seems most imminent.
Alexander’s charismatic Moses is the calmer, more meditative of the two. As his name implies, he has an aura of religious fervour and seems predestined to lead his community out of hardship. Elsadig’s Kitch is more of wild card—quick to react in rage, amusement or despair—yet those powerful moments when he grounds himself throws their love for each other into sharp, heartfelt relief.
Though the internal struggles that exist within the Black community hover in the margins of the story, the play takes more focused aim at white complicity in systemic oppression. This is represented in two repulsive characters, both portrayed with disturbing aptness by Alex McCooeye.
As Mister, he happens upon Moses and Kitch with his “aw shucks” grin—lost, meek and bewildered. With his silly picnic basket straight out of Mother Goose, we immediately recognize echoes of “Little Red Riding Hood”—a “helpless,” well-meaning fellow encountering wolves in an urban jungle. But his smarmy schtick quickly reveals an ingrained sense of superiority and entitlement. Offering up the contents of his basket, which he lays out in an absurdly large spread, he takes self-satisfied pleasure in brandishing his symbols of power and plenty.
In his portrayal of Ossifer, a beat cop looking to throw his weight around, McCooeye presents a more blatantly threatening example of oppressive brutality. There are poetic exaggerations in both monstrous characterizations, but McCooeye finds subtle and persuasive hints of their humanity that sell the uncomfortable truth of these vile men.
Are they fair depictions of the white experience of the racial divide? In context of this story, the question itself is a deflection. Pass Over isn’t concerned with assuaging white guilt or validating any individual’s sense of righteousness; it is addressing behaviour and consequence. Particularly scathing is the portrait it paints of white fragility. That defensiveness and aggression Mister and Ossifer display whenever Moses and Kitch attempt to move beyond their place reveals a rotten social contract on which white comfort depends.
I’m compelled to reflect upon the conceptual elements Pass Over shares with Waiting for Godot and, more importantly, to unpack it’s departures. With repetition and looping action, both plays unfold in distinctly remote and abandoned settings. Like the forlorn country road and barren tree of Godot: Pass Over‘s concrete sidewalk, streetlamp and fire hydrant are tangible and familiar yet eerily unmoored. Julia Kim’s striking set, with its detailed yet subtly artificial quality, makes this small wedge of urban reality feel familiar yet displaced.
The most telling difference, for me, is this: The stoicism of Beckett’s characters in the face of life’s unfairness doesn’t cut it here. Nwandu makes it clear that polite complacency in the face of police brutality and liberal white tokenism isn’t a valid response, but, at best—dehumanizing, and at worst— lethal.
Despite its heavy themes, Pass Over feels surprisingly buoyant and whimsical. We are given ample opportunity to enjoy Moses and Kitch’s friendship, to be charmed by Alexander and Elsadig’s electric chemistry. It is this lightness of tone and the optimism of their shared vision that makes the finale so devastating.