Of the many smart touches Director Mekeva McNeil brings to Rec Room Arts’ production of Antionette’s Nwandu’s, Pass Over, perhaps the most astute is her decision to eschew the curtain call. A blank stage is all we’re given to indicate the end of the show.
And for this we’re thankful. It’s not that the three actors in this production don’t deserve their kudos, they’re all excellent. But a blank stage is about all we can handle after seeing them bring Nwandu’s unsettling play to life.
A riff on Waiting for Godot with the Exodus as its metaphor, Pass Over takes the famous existentialist story and lays race at its feet. Instead of the iconic tree, there’s now an urban streetlight, surrounded by concrete. The tramps? Here they’re two young black men. The leader of the pair, Moses (Brandon J. Morgan) and Kitch (Atseko Factor), together trying to “get off this block” but stymied at every turn by racism and violence.
While the boys wait, stuck in place, they make Top 10 lists of what they’ll do once they “pass over” into the Promised Land. Penthouses, cars, champagne, and women appear on those lists. But so too do notions of freedom and lack of fear from police violence.
“Do what you can, but what can you do?" they say to each other, an acknowledgment of their impossible predicament.
A predicament that’s highlighted by the presence of whiteness in the play which Nwandu manifests in three forms.
There’s the unseen and unheard possible presence of police that makes Moses and Kitch hit the ground in protective fear. A fear based on the number of friends and family members they can name who've been shot dead by law enforcement. Then there’s the two white men (Alan Brinks playing both) that freely wander in and out of the space that shackles the boys. One a refined upper-class white man, lost on the way to his mother’s house, the other a ruthless beat cop.
Oppression has two faces, Nwandu shows us, the overt and the entitled/dismissive.
We think we know who is the most injurious to Moses and Kitch. We cringe as the cop harasses the boys for no reason other than he can and wants to. “Name?”, he asks Moses who answers, only to receive a slap. He knows that’s not what the cop wants to hear. “Stupid, Lazy, Violent, Thug”, Moses finally responds, his humiliation complete. The officer not only can take his life but his pride as well.
The gentleman on the other hand, full of gollies and gosh-wows, willing to share his picnic lunch with the boys, he seems harmless, right? But slips appear in the conversation, not the least of which is his questioning of the relentless use of the N-word between the boys. “If I can’t say it, why can you?” he innocently asks. Moses explains that the word, good or bad, belongs to them. “But everything is mine,” the gentleman insists politely.
Who Nwandu deems the most dangerous to the boys, and by extension, the black community comprises the disturbing climax of the play. It’s a shock - narratively then emotionally. And it's one of those theater moments that make being shoulder to shoulder with other human beings, experiencing something together, one of the most profound experiences art can give you.
That all of this affects us so, is due to the superb way this production honors Nwandu’s provocative script.
At this point, we’ve used up all the positive adjectives available when describing Brandon J. Morgan’s total ownership of the stage. His swagger, charisma, vulnerability, humor, coolness – they’re all in full throttle in his portrayal of Moses. When he hurts, we hurt. He triumphs, we rejoice. Can Moses live up to his namesake? If anyone can make you believe, Morgan can.
So, it’s a particular triumph that his castmates shine just as brightly.
As Kitch, Atseko Factor shows that sidekick doesn’t mean sideline. Yes, he provides most of the show's humor, from his schooling on what exactly caviar is made of to his pining for the woman of his dreams.
But it's his nervous energy that we can't take our eyes off of. McNeil has him thrumming like a taut string all show, dancing, fiddling with his hat, humming, he's never still. And it's brilliant. Not only does he fill the show's dead zones (waiting is a hard thing to watch sometimes), he does so by imbuing a sense of nervousness. Funny on the surface, but scratch a smidge and we all know it's because being on the ready for a man like Kitch is not smart, it's necessary.
And then there’s Alan Brinks. Alan Brinks!!!! This is the performance I’ve been waiting for from him and it’s been worth the time. As the racist/bully cop, Brinks never falls into easy stereotype and instead brings a menace to his performance that feels uniquely fresh.
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But it’s his portrayal of the gentleman that really impresses. Genteel on the surface, kind in the moment, but full of biases, blind spots, and microaggressions, Brinks plays the perfect combination of swell and detestable with unrushed questionable charm and enraging feigned ignorance. If there’s an award for final moments on stage, Brinks will get my nod for a performance so affecting that I honestly forgot to breathe for several minutes.
If you haven’t figured out by now, Pass Over isn’t an easy play to watch. It’s alarming and upsetting, not to mention full of adult language and then, of course, add on the existential narrative and you don’t exactly have a mainstream show.
What you do have though is a show, if you’re open and intrigued by this kind of storytelling, that will come at you in ways you’re not used to. In ways that will make you think and re-think. In ways that will showcase incredible talent, up close, in a small space. And most importantly impress upon you how theater can help us understand and empathize with our fellow human beings.
Pass Over continues through February 29 at Rec Room Arts, 100 Jackson. For information, visit recroomarts.org. $15-40.