Julian Eaves reviews Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over now playing at the Kiln Theatre in London.
19th February 2020
There is a bitter desperation at the heart of Antoinette Nwandu’s ghastly depiction of the pointlessness of African American working-class lives in this grim 70-minute sermon on the failure of the Civil Rights movement in the USA. We watch, helplessly, as two men, Moses (Paapa Essiedu) and Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache, Jnr.) while away their days, stuck in a Beckettian rut, where aimless rituals are played out, over and over, completely failing to disguise the emptiness of their existence. They tease each other, they crack jokes, the audience laughs, but there is no mirth in this repartee, no warmth, and – above all – no hope. It takes a while for that bleak message to get through to the onlookers, but it was clear enough to me from the outset.
Designer Robert Jones has given them a realistic enough environment to inhabit: a shabby, down-at-heel street-corner. But the absence of any other people in their world should be an indicator that there is nothing ‘real’ about anything they say or do. Although they never shut up talking, we don’t find out very much about them. I don’t think they’re supposed to be understood as ‘real’, but their circumstances are real enough. It is almost as if their social position has robbed them of any true personality. Yet, they attract visitors. Two, in fact, which complement each other. One is a shining, pearly, glibly cheerful, 1920s throwback, Master (or Mister, as it says in the programme), who pops up like a fairy-tale character, lost in the ‘hoods, complete with red and white check tablecloth draped over a basket of goodies for his grannie, and a dainty red baseball cap that just might have ‘Make America Great Again’ inscribed upon it; then, we get his polar opposite, the black-clad, demonic presence of Ossifer – a vicious, fully armed policeman with an appetite for oppression and cruelty. Wittily, they are played by the same actor, the chillingly exact Alexander Eliot; and, in remorselessly due course, these visitors do merge into a terrible fusion, bringing about the conclusion of this terse and miserable little drama.
Not that gloom prevails for most. Prankish japes and the fulsome energy of the performances by Essiedu and Eustache mask – for most in the theatre, as far as I could tell – the hollow truth of the fate they cannot escape. Director (and Artistic Director of this theatre) Indhu Rubasingham keeps their banter frothy and light, but that gentle touch never convinced me for a moment. There is simply too much pitiless realism in the few visual details of the set to forget what horrors have put these characters where they are, and what dearth of any alternative keeps them there. The lavish feast served up to these starving victims merely seems a ‘last meal’ served to those condemned to die. And a bitingly harsh essay in the programme reminds us – yet again – of the ubiquity of violence meted out to African Americans in the so-called Land of the Free.
Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Ben and Max Ringham’s composition and sound designs, with some balletic moves by Lanre Malaolu, complete the elegant production of this frighteningly dark and dismal look into our powerful trans-Atlantic neighbour’s lower depths. It’s a powerful achievement. Looking ahead, which this play itself doesn’t really do, next year the Kiln will be presenting a great deal more new writing, but with much more of it coming from these shores. So, as a warm-up, perhaps, to taking a good, long, hard look at ourselves, this play points to some pretty harsh words being said. Let’s hope so, even if this particular drama doesn’t hold out much, or anything, in the way of encouragement. Although James Baldwin – an iconic figure of the US Civil Rights movement – gets quoted in the programme, Nwandu doesn’t let any of her characters experience any positive change or transformation. They just fail. All of them. And their story is a poem of defeat.BOOK TICKETS TO PASS OVER