Forgot to Study for the Test

A few weeks ago I went to see Pass Over, a play at the SpeakEasy Stage in Boston. It is described on the website as a “groundbreaking mash-up of Waiting for Godot and the Exodus…[that] unflinchingly exposes the reality of young black men just looking for a way out.” Sadly the show closed Feb. 2 — I didn’t manage to get my act together soon enough to give you the heads up to see it in Boston. But on the upside, it’s playing at the Kiln Theatre in London, Feb. 13 – March 21, or 13 Feb – 21 Mar, as the Brits like to write. People go to NYC for theater, why not grab an excuse to head to London?

But back to the play. Mike invited me to go during the week, and so other than reading what I quoted in the previous paragraph, I didn’t have a chance to look up anything else and had no idea what the play was about, except that it was going to be about racism. Which is like saying I’m going to see a play about relationships.

I should have read a little more. Note to self: when learning about a topic, it’s not really that much different from school. You have to actually read the material to participate in the discussion, or in this case, have a clue to what the hell is going on. So I would have totally gotten a “D” for participation. I would have avoided getting a “F” because as an English major my superpower is turning any specific discussion into a high level one of “ideas” —  person vs person, person vs nature, person vs society. At least I got the Godot reference. Thank you English degree.

The play opens with 2 young men of color, Moses and Kitch, hanging out on their street corner, waiting for things to get better and trying to avoid being killed by the police as many of their friends have. You realize fairly early on that they go through the same motions they did the day before, the day before that, and the day before that. The Passover reference comes in when they have a daily discussion about “passing over” to the promised land, and they take turns listing the 10 things they will find there. Everything from favorite foods from their childhood to no longer begin harassed/killed by the white “po po.” It’s a bitter kind of hope that sustains them.

Being a totally uncool white person, it took me about 15 minutes to acclimate to their language. Or maybe it’s also because I’ve lost some of my hearing and have become addicted to closed captioning. Nah, who am I kidding, mostly, I’m just uncool. As I started to understand more, the play veered into more day-to-day realities, of continuous police shake downs, remembering Moses’ brother who was killed by the police, and listing the many other Black men they know well or just in passing who also have been killed. Then it takes a fantastic turn (or does it?), when a white man appears on their block, who looks like he came out of central casting for a white Southerner from the past, complete with a straw hat, 3-piece suit, and a picnic basket, which he says is for his sick mother. Weird, right?  Turns out his name is … Master.

The play ends with a very in-your-face, white-people-wake-up message, which should surprise no one, and yet, I’m sure it does.

After the play, they invite people of color especially, and others who have lost loved ones to police brutality to stay behind for a discussion around that trauma. Mike said that the theater staff sometimes have to escort white people out who don’t seem to understand that the discussion isn’t for them — talk about the definition of white privilege. Hey, white people! Seriously get a clue. Although I will say, it might have been useful for the white theater staff to also gather the white people for a very different discussion in a separate space to process the play and talk about white privilege and their role in what they just witnessed. Not in a “white people can’t be left out” way, but in a hey, here’s how you can think more about not being a racist asshat and actions to take that might help. But it’s not up to the actors and playwright and other people of color to take that on. But there are links to more reading on the website, so that’s something.

When I left the play, I didn’t really feel like I had learned more than I knew going in, and of course I immediately realized that is such a white person thing to think. Upon closer examination, I think I was protecting some disturbing feelings about young Black men being gunned down for just existing.

Here is my make-up work, aka stuff that would have helped give context to the actual play and the impact of the play’s existence in the larger world:

The play was written by Antoinette Nwandu, and was, according to a New York Times article, “Inspired partly by the killing of Trayvon Martin, with main characters whose names, Moses and Kitch, Ms. Nwandu borrowed from a South Carolina slavery manifest[;] it is a Black Lives Matter play layered with the past.”

And there it is. One of those phrases I read and then keep going without pausing. “Main characters whose names, Moses and Kitch, Ms. Nwandu borrowed from a South Carolina slavery manifest.” Isn’t weird how I think of slavery as something in the past, like not having indoor plumbing, and then don’t really consider that this isn’t pipes we’re talking about. It’s people. Who have names. Who are listed like possessions along side rice (apologies to Toni Morrison and her new book, The Source of Self-Regard).

Manifest definition:

  1. a document giving comprehensive details of a ship and its cargo and other contents, passengers, and crew for the use of customs officers.

Notice that passengers are only a small part of the definition and we know the slaves were considered cargo, not passengers. How does it feel to be considered a thing? Not a person?

There was a controversy — not around the play itself, but around a white theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times who took umbrage at Nwandu’s portrayal of the white police officer. She called Nwandu out by saying the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the Black community itself.

OK, first, this is aht, as we say in Boston, so it gets to say what it wants. Second, this is such a classic white person defensive argument, and it is utter bullshit. It’s a defense. Like when your partner (accurately) accuses you of not doing the chore you agreed to do, and your response is that they didn’t do their chore. What your partner did or didn’t do doesn’t change the fact that you didn’t do what you said you would. The theatre critic’s review is the same defensive argument, except you will not get systematically killed for not taking out the garbage. White police men are killing Black men more than any other group and that is a problem, regardless of what Black men are doing to themselves, which is a result of racism, but that’s the advanced course. Depending on your choice of romantic partner, you may get called out on social media, have a long tedious argument to endure, or get the cold shoulder. None of which is lethal.

Being a talented playwright, Nwandu responded much more eloquently: “My play argues that while [the police] Ossifer’s overt aggression is pernicious, Mister’s [this seems to have change to “Master” in subsequent versions] complacent privilege is far more lethal. That one actor plays both parts demonstrates the connection between the them: Ossifer’s menace fertilizes the soil necessary for Mister’s wide-eyed entitlement to thrive.”

Well, amen. That would have been helpful to know going into it.

Also this from the NYT article: “But a few months after [Nwandu] graduated from [New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts], in 2008, the economy tanked, and she was glad to take a job at the community college, where she taught introductory theater and public speaking. She felt torn, in that class, between the imperative to teach the kind of decorous speech that would be helpful in a job interview and the desire to hear the authentic voices of her young black and brown students, profanities and all. That’s the way Moses and Kitch talk.”

And finally, I discovered this little Easter egg (OK Gamers, maybe I’m not using that right — too bad!):  Spike Lee, who I adore, was also involved. He filmed the play’s 2017 Chicago version and then showed it at Sundance in 2018 (it’s available on Amazon Prime). Then he offered Nwandu a job writing for his Netflix show, “She’s Gotta Have It.” If you have never seen the original movie, go deep on all your streaming services or go to the library and borrow the DVD. That was his first movie, which I saw when it came out in 1986. It’s simply really good film.

OK, I digress. Back to the show. I still would have had trouble acclimating to the dialogue, but these other facts would have helped frame the play and helped me not keep my emotional distance from the plight of the 2 main characters, even as I believed their situation and intellectually agreed with it. That gets me a D, but really this isn’t about grades, it’s about being a better human being. And I’m still studying for that test.

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