It might be expected that on British stages, plays centring on African American experience would find it difficult to translate the immediacy of their racialised subject matter — especially when they become overly conscious of cultural difference. Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over combats this by presenting two characters who are as alert to their wider social conditions as they are to the very specific, localised dangers posed to them: as homeless young black men, they live in nonchalant fear of the infamous ‘po-po’. Having started life in Harlem in 2014 before moving to the Lincoln Centre via Chicago, the play feels at home in Kilburn, balancing its heavy use of Americanisms with a universal portrayal of masculine vulnerability.
Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) and Moses (Paapa Essiedu) pass each day by playing elaborate verbal games, imagining what ‘the promised land’ — the undefined destination of social improvement — may look and feel like. Their relationship is fiercely affectionate, the kind which can only be cultivated in adversity. Eustache Jnr and Essiedu portray love effortlessly, but also achieve the pitiful tension brought about by deprivation and flickering hope. They pledge to ‘get up off this block’, but we soon realise that for black men, the desire for freedom and the path to its actualisation are worlds apart.
Disrupting their camaraderie are two more characters, both played by Alexander Eliot. Mister, a vaguely sinister archetype of Southern hospitality, stumbles across the pair and offers them the contents of his picnic basket, watching on in a light linen suit and pink baseball cap as they gorge. Mister’s introduction ushers in more urgent conversations around race and language: they debate the use of the n-word, and berate him for what appears to be a complete inexperience in speaking to those beyond his own circle.
The second intruder is Ossifer, a white police officer who patrols the area looking to humiliate Kitch and Moses. Here the play collides with our knowledge of reality. Ossifer is threatening enough as it is, even without the recent history of police brutality pressing hard on our viewing experience. As well as humanising hundreds of murdered black men, Moses and Kitch are, Nwandu says, ‘imbued with both biblical and antebellum experiences’. They strain under the weight of their nation’s history, but also refract some of its most painful chapters to their own comic ends: ‘That’s some real plantation shit!’, they laugh when confronted by the bleak realities of their situation. The religious parable builds as the play goes on, until eventually plagues are unleashed and spiritualism dominates the stage. One of the most powerful sections is a joyous dream sequence, in which Moses and Kitch dance together to Lanre Malaolu’s inch-perfect choreography, showcased beautifully by the Kiln’s transformed central staging.
Movement is the play’s strength throughout, and Indhu Rubasingham’s direction perfectly matches the atmosphere between the characters. When Mister enters, Moses and Kitch barely touch; Ossifer only lays his hands on Moses to place his hands behind his back in detention. Dialogue fills the stage, and perhaps could be further clipped to allow the mounting tension to breathe: Essiedu is particularly strong when looking on silently as Kitch is seduced by Mister’s offering of dim-sum and pie.
Pass Over celebrates imagination as a lifeline in times of despair, but its conclusion damns reality. Mysticism and spirituality help us to access the emotional lives of characters with whom we are so often taught to associate despair, but they can only do so much when the conditions of existence are constructed so unfairly for black men.