SpeakEasy’s ‘Pass Over’: Waiting for the ‘Po-Pos’

Hubens “Bobby” Cius and Kadahj Bennett in the SpeakEasy Stage/Front Porch Arts Collective’s “Pass Over.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

BOSTON – On their small piece of turf, a street corner in an unnamed American city, two young black men contemplate the future – or the lack of it.

Moses (Kadahj Bennett) and Kitsch (Hubens “Bobby” Cius) are plotting to “pass over” to paradise, or the Promised Land, just as the biblical Moses did when he led the Israelites out of Egypt.

But first they have to survive another day on the streets.

In this small corner of the universe the two characters cycle through moments of hope and despair  in Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” a co-production of the SpeakEasy Stage Company and the Front Porch Arts Collective, now being performed through Feb. 2 at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts.

In its construction “Pass Over” has been compared to “Waiting for Godot,” the Samuel Beckett classic about Vladimir and Estragon, who engage in a series of discussion and encounter several characters while waiting for someone who never arrives.

Playwright Antoinette Nwandu has made it a point to list the play as happening in three very distinct places: today; 1855, when slavery and plantation life was the fate of many blacks; and the 13th Century BCE,  when Moses led the Exodus out of Egypt by the Israelites.

It could also be titled “Waiting for ‘Po-Pos.’” the duo’s moniker for the police officers whose arrival they dread. Using gallows humor, they rehearse what will happen when they do arrive. “Yo, kill me now,” says Moses as he awakes. “Bang bang,” is Kitsch’s reply.

In discussion and planning it is the older, more street-wise Moses who takes the lead, as the younger, smaller, not-as-worldly-wise Kitsch looks up to him for both guidance and knowledge.

Lewis D. Wheeler, Kadahj Bennett and Hubens “Bobby” Cius in “Pass Over.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Moses often alludes to his role as the duo’s ultimate savior.  “I got plans to get my ass up off this block,” with the ultimate goal “dat promised land.”

Often, they just seem to be waiting for The End, and not knowing exactly what form it will take, as they start listing the many friends and family members killed by police.

There is no safe place. Dramatic shifts in Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting and thunderous booms from Anna Drummond’s sound design periodically remind us that death may lie around any corner.

Lewis D. Wheeler is Mister, a genial white man in a white suit – call it early Col. Sanders even if he doesn’t speak with a Southern accent  —  who ostensibly is just passing through the block on the way to seeing his mother. He says “Golly Gee” and sports a well-appointed picnic basket but the mysterious “Mister”  later says his name is actually “Master,” a disconcerting aside and one Moses notes immediately. Mister/Master also wants to know why Moses and Kitsch can use the “N word” and he can’t.  

If profanity and pretty near constant use of the “N word” bother you, then be advised  that both are prevalent. Moses and Kitsch address each other using the word in simple back-and-forth conversations.

The epithet will be used in a separate and distinct way by a snarling, brutal policeman (Wheeler again) later in an effort to shred their dignity, but in a bit of shape-shifting in time and space, the cop will morph into the son of the Egyptian pharaoh, who will be powerless against Moses.

The end will come stunningly and brutally, dreams dashed, freedom and paradise first found and then as quickly lost.

During the run of “Pass Over,” performers are eschewing the traditional curtain call at the end of the performance.

In a statement issued to the press, Dawn Simmons, artistic director of the Front Porch Arts Collective, co-producer of the piece, said it is to allow the actors to begin the hard work of withdrawing from their roles immediately after the performance.

Because it is an “intensely personal” piece, Simmons said the producers also made the decision to ask theater-goers of color and their adjacent families to remain for a healing ceremony after the play while asking others to leave. “We respectfully ask our non-black and brown guests to make space by leaving the theater so that we don’t inadvertently submit those that stay to the act of performing their trauma. “

The SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective production of “Pass Over.” Written by Antoinette Nwandu. Directed by Monica White Ndounou. Scenic design by Baron E. Pugh. Costume design by Chelsea Kerl. Lighting design by Kathy A. Perkins. Sound design by Anna Drummond. At the Roberts Studio Theater in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Feb. 2. SpeakEasyStage.com.