Danya Taymor was jazzed. It was late July and the theater director had just cracked open the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway after months of stillness and silence.
She soaked it all in, checking out the stage and tweaking her plans. Taymor is tasked with leading the first play to open on Broadway since the pandemic shutdown — “Pass Over.”
“This play is the right play to reopen Broadway. It will help lead the way in so many ways," she said. "To consecrate the space after this plague with something as rich and deep and ultimately feeling as ‘Pass Over,’ I could not have dreamed it.”
As the play makes the transition to its first preview on Wednesday, cast and crew offered their takes on the historic moment, from the first meet-and-greet to the first costume fittings and first rehearsal.
“I think, collectively, everybody is bringing their full selves after a year of transformation and stepping into this show. That energy is definitely palpable,” said stage manager Cody Renard Richard.
Playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's play tells the story of two Black friends, Moses and Kitch, stuck on an urban street corner and between childhood and manhood. They dream of leaving the corner — passing over — into paradise, a world they imagine full of caviar, clean socks and new Air Jordans.
Days melt into days and they are visited by two white characters — a man with murky motives who has gotten lost, and a brutal cop who demands they put their hands behind their backs: “Come on, boy, you know the drill,” he tells them.
Riffing off Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and the Exodus story in the Bible as well as being informed by the death of Trayvon Martin, the play explores structural racism, police brutality and economic determinism. “We ain’t chosen,” Moses tells his friend, heartbreakingly.
It was first produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2017 and staged at Lincoln Center Theater in 2018. A version went to London in 2020, and Spike Lee filmed the Chicago production for Amazon Prime.
Bruce Springsteen's show was the first to open on Broadway since the shutdown began but “Pass Over” is the first play. As with The Boss, it will be an early test of Broadway's COVID-19 precautions — required vaccines and masks for the audience.
The cast taking it to Broadway is the same that starred in the Lincoln Center production: Jon Michael Hill as Moses, Namir Smallwood as Kitch and Gabriel Ebert as both white characters. All three say the work has deepened in the intervening years, especially since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer.
“We know that what we did last time was special, and I think we have a real feeling that we can build and make something even more special,” said Ebert. “We can go to another level with all of our work.”
Theaters artists have been itching to get back to work since New York went on lockdown in March 2020. While other parts of the entertainment world have slowly crept back, commercial live theater is harder because of the physical limitations and economic model.
The world has changed since the play was last performed — and so will the play. Nwandu plans revisions throughout, especially with the end. In past productions, the cop kills Moses. In the version on Broadway, he will not.
“The text adjusts and changes and deepens and refines to meet that moment,” said Taymor, who has directed three of the play’s five iterations and makes her Broadway debut this time.
If the previous versions served as a wake-up call to Americans to see a system of injustice and brutality, Broadway's “Pass Over” acknowledges that Floyd's death did the same. Now the playwright is looking to the future.
“She’s envisioning something that doesn’t exist but could exist,” said Taymor. “She’s envisioning a way forward, which I think is really what we need right now.”
The cast and crew's first pandemic meeting was outdoors — to be socially distanced — on July 7 at Bella Abzug Park on Manhattan's West Side. “The meet-and-greet felt a little strange, a little bit of an out-of-body experience,” said Ebert.
The first rehearsal was held the next day in a studio in the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Participants described it as like the first day of school or riding a bike. They did a run-though on their feet holding the script, seeing how much of it still lived in their bodies.
“I think everyone had come back to the play hoping to keep their eyes open for new things,” Hill said after leaving that first rehearsal. “It has been electric. The ideas are popping across the table. People are listening and just really enthusiastic and excited about what we’re attempting to do.”
Smallwood compared the experience to “hearing the music of the play all over again.” He relearned his lines in solitude, but “when you have your other bandmates playing their instruments and they’re playing their notes, it really changes how you play the music.”
Even the costumes have been rethought. Designer Sarafina Bush, who dressed the characters off-Broadway, has created new costumes and colors for Moses and Kitch, going brighter for characters she wants the audience to see as men, not thugs.
“It was really important for me to drill down into their individuality and their humanity and be able to represent that on stage,” she said. “We wanted the costumes to exude their inner joy. So tonally and color palette-wise, it’s very different from what everyone had seen before.”
Bush said she got emotional at her first fitting with Smallwood. She was overwhelmingly grateful to be a part of the production, to be back working on a job after so many Zooms.
“Being able to dig into the characters in this play is really important to me, so it all just kind of bubbled up at the end of that particular fitting,” she said.
Over the following weeks, the cast would explore the work, helped with warm-up exercises from Broadway veteran Bill Irwin, who helped connect them with the work of Beckett and the tradition of tramps and clowns.
The cast and crew have scrupulously adhered to pandemic requirements. All are regularly tested and masks are necessary while on breaks and in common areas but can be removed while on stage.
Backstage, the customary trays of food and urns of coffee for people to graze on are outlawed. Everyone even has their own pencil cup. But there is something new: a $250 a week wellness stipend.
“Not only are we leading the charge out of the pandemic, showing that we can rehearse safely, we’re all taking our precautions very seriously, making sure that we can be a beacon for people to follow,” said Ebert.
Despite the pandemic raging outside and the tough truths on the page, the cast and crew say the mood is light, even playful at rehearsals. They are all hungry to create art again.
"I always try to infuse joy in everything that I do. And that’s how the room is like. They come in and we warm up, and they play and we laugh and then we dig in," said Richard. “There’s an energy in the room that I have not felt before.”
Producers are trying to get young people to see the play, making $30 tickets available for those under 35. There will also be $40 tickets distributed via community partners.
“This play works best when you’re sitting next to somebody who has a different experience than you. That’s when this play really vibrates in the house,” said Taymor.
It has escaped no one that “Pass Over” is going to the August Wilson Theatre, named after the esteemed chronicler of the Black experience on stage. Now a Black playwright is doing the same in 2021.
"There’s a reverence for the ghosts that are in the theater with us and for the legacy that the theater holds. We are excited to step into that space and dance with those spirits,” said Ebert.