“An artist’s duty…is to reflect the times.” Playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu has manifested legendary musician Nina Simone’s wise words—three times over—with Pass Over, the latest iteration of which is currently making its Broadway premiere at the August Wilson Theatre.
Directed by Danya Taymor, who is making her Broadway debut alongside Nwandu, the play—drawing from Waiting for Godot and the Book of Exodus—follows Moses and Kitch, two Black men passing time on a city street corner until a stranger wanders into the space and disrupts their plans.
Nwandu’s initial inspiration for writing Pass Over was indeed to respond to current events, specifically the tragic story of Trayvon Martin and resulting trial of George Zimmerman. Then, seven months after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Pass Over premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. “We were so angry, defeated, and couldn’t believe what was going on,” remembers Nwandu. She channeled her frustration into her writing, using Pass Over to spotlight the often-ignored systemic racism in America and indict those who were complicit in it.
Nwandu has embraced revising Pass Over’s ending to continue to engage with the current events—and audience—when and where a production goes up. When the political landscape shifted as a record number of Americans mobilized for the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, Nwandu evaluated the script for the Off-Broadway premiere at Lincoln Center. “Each time I go back with this play, I ask, ‘What’s happening in the world? Who’s actually going to be in those seats?’” With a second version produced, Pass Over was once again preserved, this time as a published script.
Now, after experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, new and urgent calls for racial justice, a 15-month theatre shutdown, and another U.S. presidential election, Nwandu is presenting a third version of Pass Over for the Broadway run—one that provides medicinal hope in its ending. “It is an invitation to every Black person to experience the Promised Land,” says Nwandu. “It’s to give a taste of the new world. We need to provide the vision so we can fix the problems. It really is healing work.”
Acknowledging that having multiple Pass Over scripts offers multiple interpretations, Nwandu encourages theatres licensing it to use the version that fits the needs of the specific community. “I now have three versions of this play from this era of American history,” says Nwandu. “If your community needs the angry version, then do that. Present whichever version you need.”
With Pass Over, what began as Nwandu’s artistic snapshot responding to a specific time in history has expanded into a flipbook that captures new angles and lenses. It’s up to us as a society to determine what’s in the next frame.