JUNE 2022 | Volume 216
Chris Francisque (L), Kwasi Thomas (R).
Four years ago, in the Time Before COVID, Ensemble Theatre Company had become a welcome fixture in Vancouver’s thriving summer theatre ecology with its 7th festival of three plays in repertory.One of them, Superior Donuts, featured a sterling performance from Chris Francisque as a young African American working in a Chicago donut shop, dreaming and scheming for a better life.
Ensemble is finally back. Having moved from the Jericho Arts Centre to the Waterfront Theatre, it looks to be reclaiming its high status. One of the two plays in this summer’s rep, Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over again stars Francisque as a dreamer. He’s superb again, as are fellow actors Kwasi Thomas and Alexander Forsyth, in Omari Newton’s powerfully funny, harrowing production that wonders, in the end, whether Black lives really matter at all in contemporary America, except to African Americans themselves.
Nearly all the reviews of the play, first produced in 2017 and rewritten for a Broadway run in 2021, note its similarities to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Francisque and Thomas play Moses and Kitch, two young Black men who spend their lives on an urban street corner, waiting, talking, playing games, and fantasizing about leaving—escaping the life or “passing over”—to some imagined paradise. Like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, you might guess, they never do. Like Didi and Gogo, they receive a mysterious visitor, eat crusts (in their case literally) from their pockets, and finally consider anotherwayto pass over: suicide.
The Beckettian parallels enrich Nwandu’s own existential ideas about the choices that give life meaning. These are not abstract, generalized lives, but poor Black men in a white-dominant America in which race frames everything. As well as Godot, Pass Over had me thinking about another of Beckett’s works: More Pricks Than Kicks.
In addition to their own fears and weaknesses, the pricks against which Moses and Kitch have to kick are epitomized in the racist white police—the popo’s, they call them—who figuratively and literally keep them in their place. At regular intervals rapid gunfire punctures the guys’ rhapsodies, and they hit the ground in fear. At first, I thought they were caught in the crossfire of a drug war, but no, these are the cops who drive around shooting Black men. When Moses and Kitch try to name all the guys they know who have been killed by cops, the list is terrifyingly long. One of these cops (Forsyth) turns up a couple of times, and it’s not pretty.
Still, there’s a lightheartedness about Kitch and Moses’ relationship. Joshing with each other in the urban dialect, they call each other the N-word in nearly every sentence. They’re funny and sweet as they play a game called Promised Land Top Ten in which they list their favourite fantasies. Moses’ include food, clean socks, and the return of his dead brother.
But true to his name, Moses has a strong intention to get off the block: “I got plans to rise up to my own potential,” he asserts, echoing Hamilton. As the play progresses, his notion of passing over becomes more biblical with a pharaoh, plagues and a river to cross. Kitch desperately hangs onto his friend’s powerful promise.
The strange visitor who interrupts their reveries is a white man dressed all in white whose name is, ominously, Master (Forsyth again). He speaks in a parody of clean-cut middle Americana (“Gosh golly gee!”) and creepy benevolence, claiming that he got lost on his way to deliver a basket of food to his mother and offering it to the guys instead. He settles in for a picnic with them until he leaves as abruptly as he came.
For a while they wonder whether, if they talk to the cops the way he talked to them, they might be accepted, left alone, allowed to leave. They even rehearse speaking in Standard English. But things won’t work out as simply as that.Though only 80 minutes long, Pass Over is rich in nuance and provides plenty of food for thought. Francisque and Thomas do absolutely sterling work in creating the rapport between these two men who struggle on the edge of hope and hopelessness. Forsyth is eerily good as Master. Jonathan Kim’s lighting design and Rick Colhoun’s sound are prominent in some of the show’s most powerful moments, and Newton’s direction is tight from start to the shocking finish of this outstanding production.
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