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Kaleb Alexander, left, and Mazin Elsadig.

Cesar Ghisilieri Photo

  • Pass Over
  • Written by: Antoinette Nwandu
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Philip Akin
  • Actors: Kaleb Alexander, Mazin Elsadig, Alex McCooeye
  • Company: Obsidian Theatre
  • Venue: Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Sunday, Nov. 10

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Arguably the most chilling scene in Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit horror film Get Out was the first one, in which a young African-American man finds himself nervously walking alone at night in an affluent white suburb. Chilling, because we knew that for many young black men, his fear was a familiar slice of life.

That Get Out character’s sense of unease and dread runs through Pass Over, Antoinette Nwandu’s incendiary play about poor young black men living in the shadow of the law.

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Nwandu’s blunt-but-brilliant piece, receiving a powerful Canadian premiere from Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre, could be tagged Waiting for Godot meets Black Lives Matter (BLM). In it, the African-American playwright cleverly reworks Samuel Beckett’s existentialist classic to comment on the police shootings of unarmed black men that ignited the BLM movement.

Instead of Beckett’s two tramps on a country road, Nwandu gives us two unemployed young men loitering on a city street corner. Like the tramps, they’re killing time, waiting. Except that what they’re waiting for isn’t the absent Godot, but the ever-present “po-po” – the police – with which a confrontation seems sickeningly inevitable.

Moses (Kaleb Alexander), as his biblical name suggests, is the leader and Kitch (Mazin Elsadig) is his follower. Inspired by their Sunday-school memories, the pair like to play a game in which they “pass over” to a promised land of milk and honey – or rather, champagne and caviar. Or, even better, pinto beans and collard greens, which is Moses’s favourite dish. It’s a Canaan where Kitch will get a brand-new pair of Air Jordans and Moses will be reunited with his dead brother – yet another young man cut down by the cops.

When Pass Over premiered in 2017 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre (in a production that was later filmed by Spike Lee), it sparked a controversy after the critic for the Chicago Sun-Times complained that Nwandu overemphasized the role of the police in the violent deaths of black men – a statement that provoked a backlash from the local theatre community.

The black characters are drawn with detail and sympathy, and portrayed beautifully.

Cesar Ghisilieri Photo/Handout

Watching Philip Akin’s potent Obsidian staging at Buddies in Bad Times, it seemed to me that Nwandu’s perspective is perfectly valid. She has captured the pervasive fear and hatred that law enforcement inspires in poor black communities. Besides, she’s not out to reassure white audiences, but to make them culpable.

There are two white characters in the play (both played here deftly by Alex McCooeye). The first, echoing Godot’s wealthy Pozzo, is a mild-mannered young gentleman bearing a picnic basket who is on his way to visit his ailing mother. He tries to befriend the wary Moses and Kitch and shares his comically bountiful basket with them. The second is a viciously racist police officer. We’re charmed by the goofy, well-meaning gent and appalled by the cop – as we’re meant to be. The two characters are a trap laid by Nwandu, which she springs in the final scene.

If her whites are deliberately grotesque cartoons, her black men are drawn with detail and sympathy, and portrayed beautifully. As the smarter and more damaged Moses, Alexander is poignant in his repeated attempts to “realize his potential” and get off the corner. Elsadig is touching as Kitch, who yearns for Moses to treat him as a brother. They are also both very funny and their grimly humorous banter – they greet one another with the words “Kill me now” – ricochets across Julia Kim’s stark lamppost-and-pavement set.

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The performances are a tribute to Akin, a director known for bringing out the best in actors. Pass Over is the last show he’s directed in what will be his 14th and final season as Obsidian’s artistic director. Coupled with his equally excellent production last month of the campus-rape drama Actually, he’s leaving with a one-two punch of urgently relevant plays that remind us why his company has become so essential to Toronto’s theatre scene.

Pass Over continues to Nov. 10. (buddiesinbadtimes.com)

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