The Audacity of Hope

Yes, And!’s “Pass Over” offers a Black existentialist take on America in the George Floyd era.

Four years on from George Floyd’s murder by police, how much has changed?

Sure, Richmond and other cities took down their Confederate monuments. Sure, some police departments created civilian review boards that purport to oversee their operations but have little real power. The underlying societal problems that led to the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 are still very much with us.

Putting all of this under a microscope with an existentialist lens is Antoinette Nwandu’s play “Pass Over,” currently being staged by Yes, And! Theatrical Co. in partnership with Virginia Rep. Originally written in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, this loose riff on “Waiting for Godot” involves two young Black men who dream of escaping their city block. Here, Vladimir and Estragon have been replaced by Moses and Kitch, the tree has become a streetlight and their unappealing radish is now a pizza crust.

Our protagonists are happiest when engaged in circuitous verbal sparring matches about their favorite meals, new Air Jordans and avoiding “getting kilt” by the police. They often return to the idea of a “promised land” where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; “passing over” to this promised land will change meanings through the course of the show.

Much is made of the biblical connotations of Moses’s (Anthony Cosby Jr.) name; its implications are a Chekhov’s gun. Playing Vladimir to his Estragon is Kitch (Erich Appleby), a man who enjoys following Moses’s lead. As much as these best friends discuss leaving their city block, they’re stuck here for all the cyclical societal reasons you’d imagine. Suffering from the symbolic weight and legacy of slavery, these characters understand their predicament but have little power to change it.

Their status quo is only upended when two white characters appear on the scene. The first is a peculiar white man (Adam Turck) in a seersucker suit and bow tie. Initially courteous, but somehow still unsettling, the man says he got lost on his way to visit his mother and offers to share food from the picnic he’s prepared. In time, we learn that this momma’s boy’s name is Master, and that the plantation is not as far away as we thought. Later, we meet Ossifer (Turck, again), a white police officer who takes sadistic joy in terrorizing Kitch and Moses.

Anthony Cosby Jr. plays Moses in “Pass Over,” Antoinette Nwandu’s riff on “Waiting for Godot.” Photo credit: Tom Topinka

Under the direction of Katrinah Carol Lewis, the results are electrifying. The trio of actors are incredibly versatile, turning quickly from broad comedy to full blown drama then back again. Cosby and Appleby bring a vaudevillian sensibility and balletic acrobatics to their roles, especially during a “Street Fighter”-esque dance sequence (fight choreography by Axle Burtness). In other moments, they compassionately embody their characters’ warmhearted hopes of a better tomorrow.

As both an overly polite dandy and a terrifying police officer, Turck brings an off-kilter menace to his characters. You’re never sure when he’s going to snap, when his characters’ white paternalism and privilege will boil over into violent white supremacy. He can be incredibly funny, as when Master’s picnic basket is revealed to have the depth of Mary Poppins’ magic carpet bag, or frightening, as when he embodies the mirror-shaded cop.

The street scene is given a Richmond dimension through a graffitied set piece (set designer Alyssa Sutherland) inspired by the now gone graffiti-covered pedestal of the Lee Monument. The initials “MDP” are included in the graffiti, referencing Marcus-David Peters, an unarmed Black man shot by Richmond police in 2018 while he was having a mental health crisis; protesters unofficially renamed the monument Marcus-David Peters Circle in his memory.

Michael Jarrett’s lighting and Grace Labelle’s sound design work in conjunction to lend a feeling of foreboding to the proceedings; when a police car goes by, you feel the characters’ fear.

Nwandu’s brilliant script makes poetic usage of vernacular Black English, peppered with prolific usage of the “n-word.” This is existentialist satire, theater of the absurd with a purpose, and the results are exhilarating.

Moses and Kitch’s desire for change is both personal and societal. Will that change ever come? That’s up to forces outside the theater to decide.

Yes, And! Theatrical Co. and Virginia Rep’s “Pass Over” plays through June 15 at Virginia Rep’s Theatre Gym, 114 W. Broad St. For more information, visit yesandrva.org.

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