REVIEWS: “Pass Over” and “Sugar in Our Wounds”
Two new plays that trenchantly tackle experiences of African American men across the present and history of our country opened Off-Broadway last week. Both floored me for different reasons; though distinct in content and message, they are united in a common theme of black erasure. Below is a look at each, both of which I highly recommend.
“Pass Over” (New Play, Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3): without an ounce of hyperbole, I submit that Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” is the most viscerally unsettling and provocative play I have ever seen on stage. Following a world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago last summer that sparked a critical controversy and was memorialized on film by Spike Lee (currently streaming on Amazon Prime), Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 program re-mounts that production by director Danya Taymor (“queens”) with a revised text and mostly new cast. Ms. Nwandu uses the framework of “Waiting for Godot” to tell a modern Exodus story as two black men named Moses and Kitch (Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood, respectively—both heartbreakingly excellent) wait on a nondescript “ghetto street”, passing time with rapid conversation, debating their escape to the promised land. Periodically, they freeze in panic, hands up—the ever-present fear of being killed for being black written across their faces. A casual prompt leads one to list off the top of his head, by my count, the names of 25 friends killed by gunfire. The men move about the space—a raised platform sitting in a giant sandbox—a ghetto, a prison, a plantation, a desert, but are never able to get too far, much less exit.
A jolly, besuited dandy of a white man named “Mister Master” (Gabriel Ebert, chilling) comes along, producing a magical picnic for the bunch to enjoy before revealing the intense racial hatred masked behind his “gosh golly gee!” patina in rage-filled explosive rant with colonialist and white supremacist sentiments. A later visit from a thuggish policeman identified as “Ossifier” (also Gabriel Ebert) proves equally as violent. These white men, two sides of one coin, signify the perniciously evil and systemic failure of white society in its treatment of people of color, revealing, in high relief, a tragic cycle of race, power, privilege, and oppression rippling across time from a “ghetto street” in the present to a plantation in 1855, to 13th century BCE Egypt—the various suggested settings of this play, all epochs scarred by various forms of slavery. Ms. Nwandu’s text bristles, snaps, and pops with an authentic street sound, giving voice to these black men, ensuring we see and hear them. It’s powerful and potent stuff. In the year 2018, in a country divided across every imaginable fault line, “Pass Over” is a cry for justice that holds a mirror to the face and shakes the conscience to its core. I won’t reveal more, but the (mostly white) audience after my performance exited the theatre in complete silence—indicted, and hopefully changed. Opened June 18th; runs through July 15th at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theatre. All Tickets $30.
“Sugar in Our Wounds” (New Play, Manhattan Theatre Club): in a trilogy he’s termed “The Love* Plays”, poet, filmmaker, and playwright Donja Love has boldly set out to reclaim personal narratives around key moments in black history, telling stories of queer love otherwise erased. Set on a plantation in the deep south in the summer of 1862, “Sugar in Our Wounds” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s black box theatre is the first, chronologically, of his series, and is an unabashed love story between two men, slaves, steeped in magic and mysticism, and armed with lyrical, humorous, and sometimes anachronistic dialogue—all set against the horrific reality of slavery. Young James (Sheldon Best) can read, taught on the Bible by the “Massa’s” daughter, Isabel (Fern Cozine), who perverts catechism to justify the unjustifiable. In the shack where they live, the ageless (“older than God”) Aunt Mama (Stephanie Berry)—mother to 33 children who all died in infancy—cares for James and Mattie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), a “yellow” skinned girl born from the rape of her mother by “Massa Jacobs”. One night, a runaway slave named Henry (Chinaza Uche) arrives; tough but tender, Henry strikes a first, forbidden romance with James, before things turn tragic.
Mr. Love gives his characters the dignity of their full existence. They are funny despite the terror they face, and want the same things all people want: love, community, and freedom. As our nation tears migrant children from their parents, “Sugar in Our Wounds” blunts any claim that “this is not who we are” by showing the de-humanizing effect of denying slaves of their families, an American practice for some 400 years. Despite the centrality of its time and place, the play is foremost a love story, both sweet and sad. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is anchored by the base of a great old tree—older than Aunt Mama—that speaks to James and later, Henry. On Sundays, the day each slave “can just be”, free from work, James and Henry find refuge under that tree—the same tree where all the men in James’ life have been hanged. In one especially poignant scene, Aunt Mama, sage and hero, explains to James: “We ain’t nuttin’ but spirits, honey. One spirit fall fa anotha spirit. Don’t care how da body look, jus care what da heart say.” It’s a modern sentiment, paired with a warning of the danger James and Henry face. This imagined play fills in for a lost historical record, bristling with humanity and raw emotion—a welcome reclamation well past due. Opened June 19th; runs through July 15th at New York City Center Stage II.