“Be all that you can be,” the U.S. Army’s catchy recruiting slogan for two decades, collides with the real world for the two engaging, young Black men in “Pass Over,” the riveting play running at Lost Nation Theater, which opened April 13, the last day of Passover. Trapped on an urban corner, Moses and Kitch dream of escaping racism and poverty to a promised land, and they amuse themselves with a made-up game in which they imagine what their lives will be one day — or not.
Likable and good-hearted, Moses, played by Brandon Burditt, and Kitch, played by DIJI, vacillate between hope and reality — the hope that life won’t always be as it is, and the harsh reality that they don’t see any way out. They joke around, roughhouse, talk about family and friends lost to police violence, and burst into playful moments, such as when they sing and dance as though they are in a Broadway musical, or feign living in wealth.
Burditt and DIJI skillfully play off each other, not missing a beat in complex, rapid-fire dialogue, and tightly holding the audience’s attention. At one point, when night comes on, each man takes a turn staying awake to protect them, while the other sleeps. For a couple of minutes, they are completely silent, yet during last week’s preview performance, the mesmerized audience also sat in silence, watching the two the entire time.
A Nod to the Original Passover
Playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu has said she began writing the play after the death of Trayvon Martin, the young Black man who was walking back from a convenience store with iced tea and a package of Skittles when he was killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator who thought he “looked suspicious.” Nwandu pointed to inspiration from Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot,” in which two men are stuck biding their time for eternity, and the Bible’s “Book of Exodus,” which details Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. The story is the foundation of one of the most important themes in Jewish history — the longing for freedom, commemorated by the annual week-long celebration of Passover.
“The piece came out in a time when many playwrights were contending with the rash of killings of Black people at the hands of the state,” Taneisha Duggan writes in her director’s note. “What was so compelling for me was that this work wasn’t just about mourning — it was a play about getting up in the morning/mourning.”
The play confronts racism head-on. The crucial third actor, who plays two roles and is on stage for shorter stints, is Orlando Grant, who adeptly provides what may arguably be called a caricature of white, anti-Black racism at its worst — from willful cluelessness to cruelty. In the first of his three appearances, he is a well-to-do white man named who says his name is “Master,” and who shows dubious kindness toward the Black men. He next appears as a sadistic police officer, whom the men and playbill call “Ossifer.”
When “Pass Over” ran on Broadway, the same actor played both of those roles, also. This is notable, because, unlike Moses and Kitch, Mister and Ossifer are not well-developed characters; together, they represent the scope of racism, rather than two specific characters.
The Humanity of Two Men Seeking a Promised Land
Although this 70-minute play has a strong political message, it is more than that. Moses and Kitch are funny, quick-witted and entertaining. Their humanity — and the rapport between Burditt and DIJI — hold the play together and keep it from becoming a political diatribe, which would undoubtedly be hard to watch. “Pass Over” is about two men who, against all odds, hope for a better life, and dream that they will one day pass over to a promised land; poverty and racism are the context in which they live and severely confine them, but don’t define them.
It is important for parents and potential attendees to know that the play includes violence, gunshots, and constant vulgarity, including the n-word; it is not recommended for those under 16. It also includes friendship and humor. “Pass Over” is a powerful play, and Lost Nation has created an excellent production; I wouldn’t miss it.
Scenic designer Kim A. Bent created a simple, visually interesting set that captures the harsh urban setting while hinting at universality; the stone block wall that dominates the set could be in ancient Egypt or in a 19th century prison. Costume designer Cora D. S. Fauser dressed the lead characters in realistic street clothes, and she emphasizes the otherness of Mister by putting him in a white suit that is completely out of place. Paul Ugalde choreographed the fight and horseplay scenes so essential to the story.
William Pelton is stage manager; Samuel J. Biondolillo is lighting designer; Marc Gwinn sound designer; and Kelly Daigneault is the associate set and light designer.
“Pass Over” continues at Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier’s City Hall Auditorium through April 30. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. After the Friday, April 21, and Thursday, April 27, performances, the audience will be invited to stay for a post-show discussion with the cast and director. Tickets are available at lostnationtheater.org or by calling 802-229-0492.
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