Written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu
Directed in Boston by Monica White Ndounou, January 3 – February 2, 2020
Directed in New York by Danya Taymor
August Wilson Theatre
245 W 52nd St, New York, NY 10019
Tickets on sale now
Article by Kitty Drexel
NEW YORK, NY and BOSTON, Mass.– Broadway stopped all activity in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic closed indoor entertainment venues across the nation.
Thirty-one plays and musicals were running before the shutdown, including eight new shows in previews. An additional eight productions were in rehearsals and preparing to open in the spring the Broadway League said. COVID-19 closed them all.
The fat lady had sung.
On April 8, the Broadway League suspended performances until June. In May, it cancelled summer performances. In June, it cancelled Fall performances. In October, it cancelled performances in NYC through May 30, 2021.
Eighteen months later, the theatres of Broadway are finally reopening. An unprecedented seven out of fourteen new plays are by Black playwrights.
It was unclear, as the pandemic first hit the US, how long the shutdowns on Broadway would last. It caused a great shock in the theatre community.
On May 4, the Broadway League announced that Broadway shows in New York City would finally resume ticket sales in August for Fall 2021 performances. Reopening was based on current health trends and with guidance from Governor Andrew Cuomo and the CDC.
Show announcements began to trickle out: “Waitress” starring Grammy winner and Tony and Emmy nominee Sara Bareilles returns to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on September 2. “Chicken & Biscuits” by Douglas Lyons opens at Circle in the Square theatre on October. “Lackawanna Blues,” written and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, goes up at the Samuel J. Friedman on September 28.
By July 10, there were seven new plays by Black playwrights opening on the Great White Way. “MJ,” a bio-musical of Michael Jackson featuring the singer’s hits, has a book by Lynn Nottage and will open on February 1, 2021.
One of those shows is “Pass Over,” written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu and directed by Danya Taymor. Currently in rehearsals, “Pass Over” began preview performances for the press on August 4 at the August Wilson Theatre said a press release from Matt Ross Public Relations. Opening night is scheduled for Sunday, September 12, 2021.
The Concord Theatricals licensing site says “Pass Over” is about two characters, Moses and Kitch, standing around on a street corner. They “talk shit,” pass the time, and hope that today will be different. As they dream of their promised land, a stranger wanders into their space with his own agenda and derails their plans for a piece of the American dream.
Freelance writer and arts journalist Kelundra Smith, who published an interview with playwright Nwandu in “American Theatre,” said in an interview she believes there have been other times in history when an array of diverse plays were on Broadway.
This time feels particularly special and unique, she said, as the nation goes through a pandemic and racial reckoning. She’s happy to see Black artists with opportunities to show what they can do and expand their reach.
Beyond race, she’s excited for the expansion of the American theatre cannon. She believes theatre’s stories have become stale: the types of stories we tell and the forms we tell them in. She’s excited to see new narratives.
“I’m excited about what this means for Black children and other children of color as far as a career in the arts is concerned. To be able to point to Broadway and say that a diverse set of plays by black writers helped to revive this nation’s commercial theater is incredibly impactful.
My hope in the future is to see even more women and people of color be able to tell their stories,” Smith said.
Broadway, like many professional entertainment industries in the US, is dominated by whiteness. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s 2020 “Visibility Report: Racial Representation on New York City Stages” said stage artists were 38.5 percent Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
20.8 percent of NYC theatre productions were written by BIPOC writers. Nearly 20 percent of jobs for BIPOC artists centered on the BIPOC experience. 14.4 percent were helmed by BIPOC directors. The study indicated a $1.7 average compensation disparity between white artists and BIPOC artists.
The story of “Pass Over” contains racial truths that extend beyond the streets of Broadway.
“‘Pass Over’ crafts everyday profanities into poetic and humorous riffs,” says the Concord Theatricals, “exposing the unquestionable human spirit of young men stuck in a cycle just looking for a way out.” It is a “provocative riff” on “Waiting for Godot,” the “Book of Exodus,” and the police killings of Black people.
A production of “Pass Over” completed its run in Boston mere weeks before the coronavirus forced the nation into quarantine. The Front Porch Arts Collective and SpeakEasy Stage Company collaborated on the January 2020 production.
The 2020 Boston production starred Kadahj Bennett as Moses and Hubens “Bobby” Cius as Kitch. Lewis D. Wheeler played Mister and Ossifer. Monica White Ndounou directed.
In an interview, Bennett said that when the Boston production was in performances, his experiences felt absurd. “Both in the way that ‘Waiting for Godot’ is absurd, but also in the way in which theatre companies like to have their one ‘Black’ show in the season.”
He said “Pass Over” felt too raw, too unapologetically Black, and too cynical to be staged in Boston.
He said, “We evaded a curtain call for a healing circle for (Black, indigenous, people of color) theatergoers and that did not sit well with white patrons. I thought it intriguing that, even after seeing Moses and Kitch’s experience, (white patrons) still could not offer a safe space for those who saw themselves in those characters.”
“I genuinely hope that these (seven Black) plays lead to widen the perspectives of the average Broadway theater goer. I had too many audience members empathize with Mister and say he ‘wasn’t that bad.’” (The character ‘Mister’ is a plantation owner and personifies white supremacy according to a movie review by Nick Allen on rogerebert.com.)
Bennett said it could make people uncomfortable to confront their relationship with racism, their abuses of power. “This country is up in arms about (critical race theory) and this show “ain’t gonna make it any easier.”
“Pass Over” on Broadway begins performances on August 4th, 2021, at the August Wilson Theatre (245 W 52nd Street, New York, NY) a press release from Matt Ross Public Relations. The three-person play will reopen the August Wilson for the first time since “Mean Girls the Musical” closed on March 11, 2020.
A filmed version of Taymor’s Jeff Award-winning Steppenwolf production, directed by Spike Lee, premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and at SXSW. It features actors Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker, and Ryan Hallahan. The world premiere of “Pass Over” was produced and presented at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2017 said the theatre’s website.
Tickets for “Pass Over” on Broadway begin at $39, and are on sale through Sunday October 10, 2021. Ticketing and additional information can be found at https://www.passoverbroadway.com/.
Black plays scheduled to open on Broadway are as follows according to Playbill.com.
- “Pass Over”, written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu and directed by Danya Taymor.
- “Chicken & Biscuits,” written by Douglas Lyons and directed by Zhailon Levingston.
- “Lackawanna Blues,” written and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
- “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” written by Keenan Scott II and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III.
- “Trouble in Mind,” written by Alice Childress and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.
- “Clyde’s”, written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whoriskey.
- “Skeleton Crew,” written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
Please see each show’s website for COVID-19 guidelines.
(This article was written for the Harvard Extension School course Race, Media and News Writing. It is adapted by the writer for the New England Theatre Geek readership.)