Pass Over at Chester: Bold and Real

Pass Over Chester
Austin B. Sasser, James Barry, and Kayode Soyemi in Pass Over at Chester Theater.

We got real last night, in the sleepy little Western Mass town of Chester, Massachusetts. Yup, our audience of privileged mostly white people got to spend 80 minutes in a completely different world… a gritty, urban street and nobody seemed to mind hearing the N-word more than 100 times. That’s awkward.  And yes, when the white guy said it, we all gasped a little. But that is kind of the point of Antoinette Nwandu’s dark yet inspiring play, Pass Over.

The play has the distinction of being the first Broadway production to open after the pandemic.  This powerful and in some ways, controversial play led us out.

In this era of a serious reconsideration of the fact that Black Lives, in fact, do Matter, and watching the many incidents of Black men being singled out and shot by cops, replayed over and over and magnified by social media, we were ready to return to a new order. This play sets that down right off.  The set by Nadir Bey once again in Chester is stark but real…a telephone pole complete with a streetlight and a transformer looms above a few milk cartons and a trash can where Moses (Kayode Soyemi) and Kitch (Austin B. Sasser) hang out.

The actors are waiting for something that feels like it isn't coming in Pass Over.
The actors are waiting for something that feels like it isn’t coming.

But like in Waiting for Godot, to which this owes a theme, they aren’t really going anywhere, it’s day after day, fearing the “popo” and wishing the other actually had some weed, instead of just talking about having some.

We see how nothing changes in the ‘hood. The actors go to sleep and wake up in the same old paradigm, you never know when you’re going to be rousted by the cops for being black.

We watch the two young black men eke out a living, and catalog their hopes and dreams writing them as symbols on the wall.  “We are going to get out of this, we are going to the promised land…” Moses makes vague promises but assures his comrade Kitch he will come with him.

As their futile dreams unfold, the days go by, and then a strange nerdy white dude (“Mister” played by James Barry) stumbles into their space. “Gosh, golly, gee,” exclaims this tie-and-shorts-and-ballcap-wearing super nerd.  To complete the Goldilocks look, he is toting a picnic basket and a checkered tablecloth. Oh man, do you know where you are N-word??   He’s addressed this way because everyone is called that, but damn, everyone knows not to touch that third rail…and then he has to tell them his very unfortunate name…”Master.”

His parents named him Master. Oh brother. He delivers a soliloquy about race, and privilege and basically pleads ignorant to ever using the N-word or being a racist himself. He represents the white community who are trying to come to terms with the concept of hidden racism and seeing the world through black people’s eyes. It’s hard and isn’t always possible.

Master does have a lot of food in that nearly endless picnic basket, and as he opens it he hopes to tempt the hungry pair with homemade collard greens and chicken.  He also has a pie, he said, since he was heading to his mother’s house to surprise her when he lost his way.  Mister is so kind and bumbling that the two don’t bother to do more than bust him a little and get him to give him their pie.

The next character we meet is the sinister representation of every corrupt bad cop who ever walked a beat.  He’s got the sunglasses, the gun, and the nightstick, and he isn’t afraid to use them or the N-word when addressing the two.  In some ways it’s clear why Mister and Ossifer are the same characters…one represents the actual racist cops who kill so many black kids, and his other side is the white community who have such a hard time relating to and understanding black fear of cops and rage.

The pair’s fantasy almost leads them to a planned suicide, and the tension is real as the rock is lifted up…but we all know that this isn’t the way out of their depressing hood. It’s going to take a sea change by the world around them.  Both actors did a good job sounding so real and the dialogue never felt forced.  It was all as real as the profanity-laced rants they both throw out. No reason to sugarcoat this shitty life.

This is an overall riveting and strong performance, and it’s worth taking the time to ponder the message and see this performance.

Pass Over, at the Chester Theater, in the center of the Village of Chester Mass in the Town Hall. Directed by Christina Franklin, Friday 7/29/22 at 7:30 pm, Saturday 7/30/22 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday 7/31/22 at 2 pm.