Theatre Review: Pass Over – Searching For Self, Or Dreams Still Deferred

March 20, 2021

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Pass Over / Directed by James Ngcobo / John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


The themes in this three-hander by American playwright Antionette Nwandu are as sadly applicable to the contemporary news cycle as they were to goings-goings on three or more centuries ago. So it’s a tragedy before the lights have even gone down. But it’s also a comedy – in a brittle, absurdist way, a drama, satire and a fresh wake-up call for whichever community it is staged in.

Moses (Khathu Ramabulana) and Kitch (Hungani Ndlovu) are two homeless black men living, waiting … just existing – a la Waiting For Godot – on a nameless street corner with a single streetlight, their conversations generally interrupted only by the sounds of gunshots and police sirens. These sounds cause an instinctive and immediate reaction in the duo, who fall face-down, terrified, onto the pavement before cautiously regaining their feet after they’re sure the possible threat has passed – a fear-induced response that speaks louder than reams of dialogue ever could.

Nwandu makes brilliant use of language to determine and define her characters’ identities and the extent to which power – or the lack of it – can be suggested or confirmed through slight tweaks in the choice of words used and the way they’re delivered. Moses and Kitch speak in an N-word-strewn, hip hop-influenced patois that takes a couple of minutes to decipher as the play begins, but which is so smoothly, naturally executed by Ramabulana and Ndlovu (with superb accents and accompanying complementary body language) that the thoughts they communicate are expressed at once clearly and with considerable nuance.

The arrival of a nattily-attired stranger stirs up what is an effective but relatively straightforward commentary on the ugliness of racism in America and its apparently eternal fall-out. Charlie Bouguenon’s Mister – the character has no more specific name, and it wouldn’t be relevant if he did; Mister is a living, breathing allegory – speaks, for the most part, with an aw-shucks sincerity that would have Moses and Kitch, and the audience, believe that he’s a well-meaning sort who really does want to extend kindness to those less fortunate than himself. But just how fractured the relationship remains between black and white and poor and rich is quickly revealed in the way the conversation between the suspicious Moses, the uncertain Kitch and the swaggering Mister plays out – again, thanks to small but devastating choices in terms of the language used.

Bouguenon also plays Ossifer, a much more basic policeman character who uses his position as an extra weapon alongside his truncheon and gun. He is more of a conventional bully than the sophisticated, sinister Mister, who dominates others by suggestion and manipulation, and as such has considerably less power, though telling him that directly would undermine his whole perspective on the world.

The wonderful complexity and sobering impact of the layered interactions are undone by an unsubtle ending that leans rather too heavily on recent race-related headlines – #BLM; a certain US President – to make points that have been more effectively, less aggressively communicated already. Still, it’s undeniable that the message of Pass Over cannot – must not – be allowed to slip from top-of-mind status, so if the combination of the more lyrical content of the script with these blunt allusions speaks clearly to a larger proportion of the audience, it’s completely worth it.

A play – supported by fantastic performances – that inspires with its artistry and challenges with the burden of its implications.

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