Preview; Pass Over at Kiln Theatre

PUBLISHED: 17:57 18 February 2020 | UPDATED: 17:57 18 February 2020

Gershywn Eustache Jr and Paapa Essiedu in Pass over by Antoinette Nwandu at Kiln Theatre pictures Marc Brenner

Gershywn Eustache Jr and Paapa Essiedu in Pass over by Antoinette Nwandu at Kiln Theatre pictures Marc Brenner

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A mash up of the Bibical book of Exodus and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Antoinette Nwandu’s play foregrounds US race relations as two friends on a street corner encounter a racist cop, a white liberal, and share their dreams.

Gershywn Eustache Jr and Paapa Essiedu in Pass over by Antoinette Nwandu at Kiln Theatre pictures Marc BrennerGershywn Eustache Jr and Paapa Essiedu in Pass over by Antoinette Nwandu at Kiln Theatre pictures Marc Brenner

Antoinette Nwandu's Pass Over, a mash up of the Bibical book of Exodus and Beckett's Waiting for Godot, foregrounds US race relations as two friends on a street corner Moses and Kitch encounter a racist cop, a white liberal, and share their dreams.

Ahead of its' UK premiere at the Kiln Theatre we asked her some questions.

Q You grew up in a religious family, how has the Bible been an inspiration/influence?

A I grew up in a conservative, evangelical Baptist denomination that taught a literal interpretation of the Bible (and I was a pretty literal-minded child anyway) so I've always understood and accepted the Bible's miracles and mysteries on their own terms. This gives my work a kind of epic scale, even and especially when I'm writing about ordinary people, and it also undergirds it with moral and spiritual urgency. I'm writing to entertain, but also to challenge and transform.

Q You were among the first in your family to go to college (Harvard) how was that?

A Growing up, I used to spend a few weeks of the summer with my grandmother and her sister, the only other person in my family to graduate from college. Together they made the idea of higher education tangible for me. Once I actually got to Harvard, the experience was a jumble of contradicting experiences: heady, intimidating, bountiful, and intensely lonely. You're there with about 1600 other people, most of whom know themselves to be 'the best', 'the smartest', and you start to realize that that can't keep being true for everybody. You're on this beautiful, storied campus at the epicenter of American history - this mythic space in the American imagination- and you just kind of flip the fuck out. You toggle between feeling really cocky and really depressed. And then, if you're lucky (and I was), you find the strength and the community to make it through.

Q Pass Over mixes Beckett's nihilism with its polar opposite Exodus, is the play as much a personal debate about these competing ideas of the afterlife as exploring Moses and Kitch's experiences?

A Absolutely. In this play, the political is definitely personal. That said, the existential conflict I'm focusing on doesn't only take place in an afterlife, but right here on earth. The idea of the American Dream is so pervasive in the US, and it hits so differently for black people, who's lives, freedom and potential for happiness are valued less than that of white people. In some ways, this play is in conversation with the Young Vic's recent production of Death of a Salesman. Black Americans wrestling with the dregs of the American Dream, realizing that, despite the rare stardom of a lucky few, as a people, we've gotten a bum deal.

Q It was first produced around the time of Trump's election was that relevant?

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A I'd written it during the final two years of Obama's second term in response to the uptick in state-sanctioned violence against black people that began to plague the news cycle, but the world premiere happened at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in July 2017, so, yes, #45 (the president makes corrupt money off of his name. I refuse to honor him by uttering it) had been in office since January.

In hindsight, the violence that fuelled my writing now feels like a warning bell alerting us to the widespread chaos and cruelty our nation is currently experiencing, with its lockstep conservative politicians and armed citizen soldiers. So, yes, the re-writes that I did during that 2017 rehearsal process where very much informed by how quickly our political landscape had changed.

Q You got the character names from a slave manifest - and the play is set in no particular place..

A My original impulse was to write about enslaved men who try to run away in the antebellum South. So I scoured slave manifests for character names in order to honor those men who actually lived that horror. But the early pages I was writing weren't cooperating with my original vision. Their speech kept veering into modern day, in part because we don't know much about how enslaved people talked. Add to that the violence that was dominating the news and it felt like the history I was attempting to conjure wasn't in the past at all.

Q You've said you wanted to confront issues of white privilege and violence against black people, did you feel that was something theatre hadn't sufficiently addressed and have audience's responses depended on their own background?

Q That's not how I think about the plays because my narratives emerge from the inside out. As far as audiences go, regardless of demographic, people show up at the theater with their full selves, every joy, sorrow, fear, and love they've ever known, I can't be responsible for, or adequately represent, the alchemy that occurs between my text and who they are. If you have ears to hear this tale, come hear it.

Q Will the play translate for Kilburn audiences?

A Indhu Rubasingham and everyone at the Kiln are doing such a wonderful job of rendering the play for a London audience, that I expect they will see it as a story set clearly in the United States, but also sense the unspoken connection to the political and cultural landscape in the UK. The particulars of our political situations are different, but the zeitgeist, the cruelty, ignorance and chaos, are sadly the same.

Q The night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King told a congregation 'we as a people will get to the Promised Land' do you feel hopeful for the future?

A My feelings about politics change everyday. It's just such a mess. That said, I am hopeful about the non-political parts of our future. During times of political instability, we're called upon to shore up our personal and communal ethic. How we treat each other always matters, but it feels like it matters so much more right now.

Pass Over runs at Kiln Theatre, Kilburn High Road until March 21.

kilntheatre.com

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