Passing over to a more just realm

Published: Apr 10, 2020, 04:40 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

During a recent solitary breakfast, I rediscovered through Spike Lee's Pass Over that though slavery ended long ago, racism is far from over

A still from Spike Lee's film adaptation of the play Pass Over
A still from Spike Lee's film adaptation of the play Pass Over

picOne indulgence I continue to enjoy in solitude, despite being currently not just partnered, but quarantined with my co-inhabitant, is breakfast at my writing desk. It's something I've always delighted in. If I don't have bread, I even take the trouble to knead dough and make myself two chapattis, which I eat with bhurji, or an omelette, or with butter and chutney, or, if I have over-ripe bananas, I might make fritter-like pancakes.

I make some adrak chai, portion it into two mugs, one for him, one for me. I know he'll most likely have already consumed his bowl of cornflakes. He usually inhabits the living room through the day, out of respect for my workspace, which remains in our bedroom. I take my lovingly made breakfast, spread it on my writing desk, and I either read The New Yorker, or The Paris Review, or I watch something (at present, either Chef's Table or, if there's a new episode, then Mom). Maybe twice a week, we eat breakfast together. But usually, since I now eat lunch and dinner at the table with my partner, I derive even more pleasure from my solo breakfast dining.

A few days ago, as I was performing this indulgence, I decided to finally watch Spike Lee's film adaptation of Pass Over, a play written by Antoinette Nwandu, which I'd seen listed on Amazon Prime. The feature is the result of Lee secretly filming, with ten cameras, a production of the play at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, with Jon Michael Hill (famous for his role as Detective Bell in Elementary) and Julian Parker. They play Moses and Kitch, two African-American men living on the intersection between Chicago's 64th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, known to be an infamously violent block.

Nwandu's Pass Over is a contemporary take on Samuel Beckett's modernist epic, Waiting for Godot, which premiered in 1953, with the African American protagonists Moses and Kitch standing in for Vladimir and Estragon. In Beckett's absurdist saga, the characters await the appearance of Godot, whereas in Nwandu's Pass Over, they fantasize about transcending their present reality.

The stage directions on the actual script prescribe a no-intermission policy. "If Moses and Kitch cannot leave, neither can you." They would like to escape their fate; being in a situation where they may be killed for no other motive other than the fact that they are black bodies. They sustain themselves by imagining what might lie on the notional other side of the River, referring to that world as the Promised Land; and given that one of the characters has been named Moses, the biblical references get punctuated as does the throwback to the Black civil rights movement, with a recalling of the subversive spiritual Go Down Moses (movingly rendered by Louis Armstrong in 1958).

The phrase was also, I learned later, one of two forms of code songs used by fugitive slaves fleeing Maryland, and was used by Harriet Tubman, so Sarah Bradford informs us in her 1869 authorised biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman.

The existential crises within the play and the film are heightened by the sound design. Each time Moses and Kitch dream about fleeing their current reality and passing over, they hear the paralysing refrain of gunshots in the near distance. Their bodies' muscle memory kicks in and they throw themselves onto the floor, as if surrendering to an invisible authority, revealing poetically, how the emotionally traumatised body internalises subjugation.

Pass Over works as a film, because of the medium's ability to transmit to audiences around the world that racism is far from over, even though slavery was abolished more than a century ago. Yet, the film is only so satisfying. I'd have given anything to actually be part of the audience that gets to watch the play first-hand. I would have loved to be part of a communal viewing. Lee focuses on the audience members who were specially invited on the day the production was being filmed, mostly young black men and women and inhabitants from the Projects, people who very directly related to existential dilemmas of the characters on stage.

Nwandu's script evokes multiple possibilities of the kinetic potential of the word passover; to move from one realm to another, to transcend suffering, to arrive at the border of Promised Land, to break bread, to feel passed over, to recognise you might never be chosen in the eyes of a White supremacist God.

One powerful suggestion remained with me; that Moses could only part the Red Sea because he was leading a whole community of slaves seeking refuge from persecution in the land across from it. The event transpired because of the power of communal grace. What if that is what Exodus had indeed been testifying to, that we can only pass over as a unified, collective entity; that our individual salvation was always interlinked within a nexus?

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx

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