Im a writer, she says, during a phone call from an Amtrak train en route from New York to Harrisburg, Pa. I love language. I would never want to keep anyone from more vocabulary. But the greater value is the authenticity of voice. In that class, I felt many students were able to value their own voices for the first time. Youre not going to care about language if that language is foisted on you by someone else.
In the middle of all this, George Zimmerman, the man who shot the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, was acquitted of all charges. Here was vivid evidence, Nwandu thought, of why so many of her students felt undefended from police and vigilante violence. She started writing furiously in her journal about these issues, and from that writing emerged the voices of two young men, not unlike her students, caught in a similar situation.
Those characters, Moses and Kitch, are the heart of Pass Over, which premiered in 2017 at Chicagos Steppenwolf Theatre. A filmed version of that production, by director Spike Lee, is available on Amazon Prime. Moses and Kitch spend the entire play on a single out-of-the-way street corner of an unnamed American city. Their vocabularies largely consist of repetitive profanities, racial epithets and slang, but Nwandu demonstrates how those characters transform each of those words into a multiplicity of meanings. That enables them to grapple with big ideas about justice, friendship and ambition.
When I stopped judging my students, the playwright recalls, I found that they had a lot to say. But there was this tension between their big ideas, their big feelings and the limited words they had to express them. They coped with that by using the same word to mean several different things. A lot of the time, the sound and rhythm of their voices supplied as much meaning as the words themselves.
By naming one of the characters after the Old Testament Moses, she incorporated the Exodus story into the drama from the beginning. The tale of Moses leading Jews out of Egyptian slavery into the promised land of Israel was an inspiring, instructive fable for the anti-slavery movement in the mid-19th century, and again for the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century.
But for the Moses of Pass Over, caught in 21st-century urban America, its not clear where the Red Sea or, in this case, the Ohio River is, or how to get across it. As the playwright imagined these two men, stuck night after night beneath a streetlight, looming over them like a dead tree, another story came to mind: Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot, the modern classic about two tramps seemingly unable to leave their own roadside spot.
I love both those texts, Nwandu says. One story is about escaping bondage, and the other is about being stuck where you are. If you put them together, you start with seemingly irreconcilable premises. And anytime there are irreconcilable contradictions in a play, it makes for a muddier, more realistic truth. I prefer that, for there are no easy answers. This created a literary space where I could dump all my complicated, contradictory feelings about America. It didnt resolve them, but it did allow me to explore them.
By infusing this story about contemporary America with older fables, Pass Over is able to address what Nwandu calls larger-than-life questions the issues that daily life asks us to ignore. Like the biblical Moses and the pharaoh or Becketts Didi and Gogo, Nwandus Moses and Kitch become substantial enough to tackle those issues.
Its easy to say that this play is just a particular story in a particular place, Nwandu says. Its easy to diminish the scope of these characters questions and their desires, just because of their clothing and speech. But theres something universal about them, just like Hamlet. When I was a black woman in high school seeing Hamlet for the first time, even though I wasnt a man, wasnt a Dane and didnt speak in iambic pentameter, there was something about that character that reflected my own humanity.
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.
Dates: Through April 5.