“Pass Over” and “Hymn” Complement and Echo Each Other Across the Berkshires
There are two new plays about pairs of Black men playing at two theaters 20 miles away from each other in the Berkshires this week. One is about middle-class homeowners and the scenes take place in a bar, a gym, and a church. The other has the two men stranded on a city street corner, sleeping and spending all of their day afraid to leave their block. There are many things that differentiate the two pieces and make them unique experiences, and a few that unite them making the comparisons most interesting.
Hymn by Lolita Chakrabarti (“Red Velvet”), a British actor and writer, is at Shakespeare & Co and was written during the pandemic and first premiered online. The play opens at a funeral with Gil (Kevin Craig West) eulogizing his father in somewhat reserved, measured tones. Benny (“ranney”} stands off to the side before approaching him to announce that Gus was both their fathers. Benny was born 6 days before Gil.
The play follows them over the course of a year where they quickly confirm the paternity and begin to get to know one another. Gil worked with his father in a stationery store, Jones and Sons, and Benny has 33 years in logistics. They bond and trade family stories in a dozen blackout scenes set in bars, gyms and parties, all accompanied by R&B music ranging from Bill Withers to Will Smith to The Sugarhill Gang. Director Reggie Life has made many excellent choices moving this play from scene to scene on this minimal but effective set by Julianna Von Haubrich and ratcheting up the tension as the calendar goes by. The play is a fascinating reversal of fortunes which sometimes had me questioning details but never lost my interest for a second.
The most intimate conversations are about money. Benny confesses that he only has $10,000 in savings and then quickly asks “Is that alright?” as if asking for approval. They have been sharing many laughs, confidences and reassurances with each other when Gil proposes they go into business together and it does feel like a proposal with all the nervousness, excitement and fear attached to it. What keeps the two men from the American Dream could be a self-destructive gamble, a lack of preparation for the financial stakes they’re playing for, or simply that the game is rigged against them.
Kevin Craig West cracks his suave shell in this role and opens up physically and emotionally, embracing the idea of having a brother. It’s like a dream come true for him that gets him working out, rapping and perhaps drinking more than he should. There are large reservoirs of feelings that open up in this performance. “ranney” is a naturally funny actor who can get any laugh that’s there with his large expressive eyes but when his pain is exposed…it is awful to watch. His closing speech is a marvel of understated agony.
Hymn celebrates male friendship while it also strikes an elegiac note for opportunities denied.
Pass Over was written in response to Trump winning the presidency in 2016, premiered at Steppenwolf in 2017, Lincoln Center in 2018 and was the first play to open on Broadway after the 18 months of pandemic lockdown. Antoinette Nwandu wrote different endings for each production reflecting what she felt the audience’s needs were in that specific time.
The play has received many accolades and a film adaptation by Spike Lee. It has been called a combination of Waiting for Godot and the Exodus story of the Israelites. Moses (Kayodé Soyemi) and Kitch (Austin B. Sasser) pass the time on the corner, dreaming of what life would be like in the Promised Land. They make lists, talk shit and challenge and support each other as they watch another day go by. They are interrupted by two white men, Mister and Ossifer, both played by Chester regular James Barry.
Mister comes bearing a picnic basket on his way to mother’s house with salutations and offers of copious amounts of food. Ossifer is a patrol cop who comes as an occupying force, harassing, belittling and threatening them before stealing their apple pie and exiting. The racist threat is perceived in both and with each entrance the existential threat is raised.
The play operates on a couple of different levels at once. Besides the literary allusions, there is a comedy with language and wordplay between Kitch and Moses that’s really fun. The stakes and anticipation of what’s going to happen are terrific and the identification and participation watching the ending are gut-wrenching. Besides the striking theatrical craft at work, it is hard not to feel implicated and called to account for the action on stage.
The set designed by Nadir Bey has a great telephone pole center stage split between two walls of cracked brick which have some surprises exploited by lighting designer Madeleine Hebert.
Barry does his usual excellent work, all “Gosh, Golly,” smiling folksy good Samaritan as Mister and steely, inhuman thug as Ossifer. He’s always great but I’ve never seen him play such broadly satirical roles and he’s great at it. Austin B. Sasser is the more wide-eyed, optimistic of the pair and his hopefulness makes you wish for the best while Kayodé Soyeme seems to know the price required to enter the Promised Land and watching him puts you on edge for the reckoning. The two have a blast playing off each other and fill the house with joy early in the play which makes the trip the play takes us on that much more profound.
Director Christina Franklin has done an excellent job with this pressure cooker of a play, moving it along and knowing when to turn up the heat and when to chill. The time flew by and left you changed like a summer storm that swept through town.
It is a great, great privilege to be inside theaters again after three long years and to be able to see two such impactful plays echoing each other’s themes over the Berkshire mountains. It’s hard to say what’s going on in the country on any given day but the theater is changing and it feels good to attend.
By Lolita Chakrabarti
Shakespeare & Co, through 8/28
Tickets: www.shakespeare.org or 413-637-3353
By Antoinette Nwandu
Chester Theatre Company, through 8/7
Tickets: www.chestertheatre.org or 413-354-7771