Review: Pass Over (Kiln Theatre)

Antoinette Nwandu’s UK premiere runs at the west London venue with Indhu Rubasingham directing

Paapa Essiedu and Alexander Eliot in Pass Over
Paapa Essiedu and Alexander Eliot in Pass Over
© Marc Brenner

Pass Over is a politically charged play documenting the lives of two black men – Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) and Moses (Paapa Essiedu) – who just want to "get up off the block". Yet it becomes clear that this 'block' is not only the physical land upon which they stand, but a metaphorical expression for the very real oppression they face.

Robert Jones' design is simple: much of the stage is bare but we see an old rusty fire hydrant and a sign pointing offstage reading "One Way". These words hint at the ephemerality of this space, filled by the two friends with boyish energy. What does it mean as black men – the target of police brutality – to have only one way out of the block? Are these men already dead? The absurdist influences of Waiting for Godot are implicit in the play – as Kitch states, "As I stand here, I'm already a dead man". Is the block already afterlife, an apocalyptic post-colonial state where black citizens merely wait for permission to 'pass over' to heaven or hell?

The two men stand and dream of a promised land where they'll eat caviar and drink champagne. Yet they remain trapped by the fear of what will happen if they move forward. Moses and Kitch's status quo is interrupted by the arrival of a white man in a crisp white suit, wielding – bizarrely – a picnic basket and a forced smile. This is Mister (Alexander Eliot) or, as he refers to himself in a momentary Freudian slip, "master". Eliot impressively takes on a role that embodies white supremacy, privilege and fragility combined. His speech – exclamations of "gosh" and "golly" – mask undertones of prejudice and racism with propriety, a hilarious caricature of those who approach conversations surrounding race relations like a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Pass Over doesn't specifically say anything new on the conversation surrounding black male friendships and dangerous interactions with the police. Every time we reach a new height in comedy and boyish charm between the duo, it is interrupted by brief flashes of fear (when will the police arrive?) that need more time to land to be truly effective. Nonetheless, the way it discusses topics of race and brutality is clever, so subtle that such explorations are in danger of being missed. For example, the play deliberates the usage of the 'N word' – Kitch and Moses are distracted by the idea that erasing the word might erase their oppression, the very idea of which is actually suggested by Mister.

It's a credit to writer Antoinette Nwandu for interweaving the Biblical allusions – alongside all the other inter-texual references this play carries – so seamlessly, with Moses being named after the leader who led the Israelites from slavery to the promised land. In the Old Testament, the Passover refers to God's protection of His people, by ensuring the angel of death "passes over" their households, attacking only their captors. In this play, black men dream of the promise land, but they are not 'chosen', instead swept away by the red sea of imperialism.

The relationship between the two black men is entirely believable, a beautiful performance by Eustache Jnr and Essiedu. Essiedu confidently delivers an emotionally driven, sympathetic Moses – grappling with the death of his brother and dreaming to live up to his full potential – whereas Eustache Jnr plays the more good-natured yet bumbling counterpart to his best friend. There is an uncomfortable moment – presented as comedy – where a hungry Kitch joyously falls upon the food Mister has provided. The point may be to show the dehumanisation of Kitch through the eyes of Mister, but it's a presentation of black men that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

It's not a deal-breaker, but the story can easily be told without the time jump between the two acts. Instead it loses some of its flow, before being quickly picked up again towards the end, as Moses is able to exact some revenge of his own. Overall, Pass Over is a witty, humorous gem of theatre, exploring issues of race in a refreshingly satirical way.