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Antoinette Nwandu’s ‘Pass Over’ not about race


On stage at the Laboratory Theater of Florida through April 16 is Antoinette Chinoye Nwandu’s drama Pass Over.

Pass Over is a troubling 3-actor play set on a bleak inner city street under a solitary lamppost that functions as a stark reminder of the one in downtown Omaha where a packinghouse worker by the name of Will Brown was lynched in 1935 – if not the local lynching trees that populated many southern towns during our not-too-distant past.

On a granular level, Pass Over is a poignant portrayal of two young black men who are trapped by circumstance and concomitant lack of economic opportunity in a bleak, desperate existence. Rather than succumb to the influences that have claimed the lives of so many of their family, friends and acquaintances, Moses (played by Robert Barner) and his sidekick, Kitch (played by Reuben Morgan), maintain their dream of passing over into a better life, filled with potential, where they can feast on caviar and champagne and motor around town in a sleek yellow Ferrari.

The message is simple and straightforward. Everyone has aspirations and deserves the chance to realize their dreams no matter how outlandish. But more than class, education and God-given talent, the color of one’s skin often predetermines their station in life. NBA star Lebron James put it this way in 2017: “No matter how great you become in life, no matter how wealthy you become, how people worship you, or what you do, if you are an African-American man or an African-American woman, you will always be that.”

Nwandu says she was inspired to write Pass Over following Trayvon Martin’s murder. But setting that incident and the Ahmaud Arbery murder aside, most unarmed black men have more to fear from the police than from private citizens and in the story, Moses and Kitch worry about and are ultimately harassed by the po-po (police). But Pass Over is not about race. It’s about caste.

Most people associate caste with India. While in India, caste refers to any social order based on birthright, the term also encompasses a system that ranks people’s worth based on the color of their skin.

Caste is ingrained. It is insidious and intransigent. It operates inflexibly, often unconsciously, sometimes even violently, to keep those in the lowest ranking “in their place” – as happened just last night to Tennessee Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson.

Even people who don’t regard themselves as racist will nevertheless say and do things to keep those at the bottom subordinate.

After all, they’re invested in their own status and the privileges to which their ranking entitles them regardless of education, physical attributes or economic accomplishments.

Viewed from this lens, what happens to Moses and Kitch in Pass Over seems inevitable and sadly inescapable. But while it is painfully descriptive of the circumstance in which African American men and women find themselves, whether their name is Lebron James, Desmond Marrow, Henry Louis Gates or John Doe,  Pass Over also serves to sensitize audience members to the caste-driven behaviors that seek to hold people – all people of color, as well as women and those in the LGBTQ+ and AAPI communities – down and keep them in their “proper place.”

It’s interesting that Antoinette Nwandu has written two different endings for her play, one dire, the other more optimistic. Some hope, albeit with fear and trembling in the truest existential sense, that the coming generation of young Americans will shed itself of the vestiges of a social hierarchy and economic system based, as it is, on the slave trade that began in America in 1619 and persists to this day in the predominance of people assigned to America’s lowest caste members in the menial jobs that proved to be at greatest risk during the recent pandemic. Others worry about the backlash that is likely to worsen as the country moves inexorably toward 2042 – the year when the census predicts that whites will become the minority race in the United States.

That backlash has already started. It can be seen in the legion of laws that purge minorities from voting roles and make it harder for them to vote in the first place. It can be seen in efforts to restrict immigration from everywhere except European nations. It can be seen in a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color, disenfranchises them, often for life, and removes them from society during their peak reproductive years. It can be seen in laws that deny women autonomy over their bodies and health care decisions. It is self-evident in the move to ban books that increase awareness of the current social order and the denigration and dismissal of those who reject its implicit bias and unapologetic inequality as “woke.”

For all of their idiom and profanity, Moses and Kitch are likeable, sympathetic figures. Robert Barner and Reuben Morgan do a masterful job of winning the hearts of the audience and enticing them to become invested in their hopes and dreams of escaping their dire, desperate situation.

That’s precisely what’s required to supersede and overcome the callous disregard that’s built into a system that assigns, confines and sequesters people into an unfavorable social and economic system solely on the basis of the color of their skin. Therein lies the brilliance of Antoinette Chinoye Nwandu’s true-to-life dialogue, humanizing characterizations and overarching theme.

No matter who you are, go see this play. Like it or not, we are all complicit in the social structure in which we find ourselves today. While we may not have been around in 1619 or 1865 or even during the Jim Crow era, we are each responsible for the decision we make right here and now to either continue to hold people down and in their place or facilitate their pass over into a social structure that operates independent of and without reference to skin color.

Pass Over sets the stage and defines the stakes.

What will you do?

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