Broadway is back. No cheering yet

My 18-month, pandemic-enforced hiatus from theatergoing is finally over. Ever since my last visit to a Broadway show (on March 11, 2019, the night before all New York theaters shut down), I have gone to no live, in-person performances, indoors or out — and even steered clear of most of the Zoom plays that popped up as a feeble substitute for the real thing.  But last week I trekked to the August Wilson Theater to see the first Broadway play of the new, supposedly back-to-normal season: Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s critically acclaimed one-act drama, Pass Over.

I wish I could deliver the sort of “Hallelujah, Broadway is back!” story that so many of my colleagues have written. But the evening was, frankly, pretty dispiriting. The simple act of going into a crowded theater, for one thing, is now a fraught experience: monitors at the door checking for proof of vaccination, masks of course required, but the audience still forced to sit elbow-to-elbow in a theater as tightly packed as ever (at least 80% full on the night I was there). This puts you on edge in a way that makes it harder than ever to be drawn into what’s happening onstage.   

Nor did the play offer much help. Pass Over, a sort of Waiting for Godot for the Black Lives Matter era, centers on two African American friends, on an unnamed street corner, who banter incessantly about wanting to escape their blighted, cop-menaced inner-city neighborhood.  The echoes of Beckett are obvious (a single street lamp instead of a bare tree at center stage; one of the characters keeps fiddling with his shoes). But whereas Beckett’s calculated tedium is meant to convey the aimlessness of existence, here it seems more the reflection of a playwright struggling to fill up stage time.  The profane, repetitive, rapid-fire interplay between the pair is interrupted by occasional freeze-frame moments—the two suddenly crouching in fear, as the lights and soundscape turn ominous — and by the arrival of two clearly symbolic characters: a well-dressed, improbably chipper white man (carrying a picnic basket for his mother, no less) and a racist cop.  

It’s hard to imagine a play more perfectly calibrated for our current racially charged moment. But its power, I think, depends less on what the play brings to the audience than on what the audience brings to it: namely, the memory of George Floyd and a couple of years of appalling newspaper headlines. Even preaching to the converted, the play pushes too hard. Does the clueless white man really have to be named “Master”? Does the cop have to be such a cliched thug? It’s possible that the play seemed fresher and bolder, even prophetic, when it was first staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2017 (a production recorded on film by Spike Lee and now streaming on Amazon). Today it seems too obvious, even derivative.   

Since that first production, Nwandu has changed the play’s ending — in response, she said, to recent events. Originally it ended with an abrupt act of violence; now it culminates with a fantastical vision of redemption. For me, it was the play’s best (if most mystifying) moment, simply because it was the only one that wasn’t entirely predictable. Yet I’m always suspicious of a play so malleable that its ending can be changed in response to the news headlines. In fact, I would argue, virtually any ending Nwandu tacked onto her play — tragic or cathartic, pessimistic or hopeful — would have elicited the same round of rave reviews. For theater critics eager for serious works on Broadway, and supportive of the current push for more racial diversity, this is a play all but immune from criticism.   

But it shouldn’t be.  

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