The playwright's 'Pass Over' is now on Broadway—and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
In 2017, Spike Lee approached Antoinette Nwandu about filming her play Pass Over and producing a version of it for the screen. She said no. It's the same answer she would give four years later, when negotiations to transfer the piece to Broadway began—a step that would make Pass Over the first play to return after a 16-month industry-wide shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Evidently, the “no's” didn’t last: Lee’s capture of Pass Over is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. And on August 4, Antoinette Nwandu did, indeed, make theater history and bring the show to Broadway.
A play or musical’s journey to Broadway is largely a real estate game. There are only so many theaters and so many opportunities to fill them. Still, Pass Over’s reign hardly feels like a luck of the draw. A provocative, genre-slashing riff on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the story of Exodus, the show introduces audiences to Moses and Kitch—two young Black men stuck on a purgotorial street corner. They are desperate to pass over to a new land, but crippled by fear and the inevitable threat of police violence. In earlier productions of Pass Over at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and New York’s Lincoln Center, the men’s journey was a gutting one, culminating in fatality. This time around, however, Nwandu was determined to leave the taste of triumph, not tragedy, on audiences’ tongues.
So she set out on a massive undertaking at an unprecedented time: completely revamp the ending of her play to focus on Black freedom and joy while Covid’s many variants continued to ravage the nation and hesitate the circumstances around Broadway’s return. And unlike almost every other profession in the performing arts, theater writers have no labor union to lean on. There is no organized body offering health insurance, encouraging collective bargaining, or establishing industry standards. Success, especially success amidst a pandemic, can mean something very different to each writer illuminating the marquees of Midtown Manhattan.
“Don't come to me with ‘Oh, success means your show is making a lot of money,’" she tells Glamour. "I have a play about Black joy that just opened this space. And people who have never seen themselves on the stage are seeing themselves on this one!”
Whatever the definition, success as a playwright is hard won. Now that she has had a taste of it on her own terms, Nwandu shares what it means to step into her power, lean on her ancestors, and prioritize self care.
Can you walk me through the day you learned Pass Over was going to reopen Broadway?
Antoinette Nwandu: I actually can’t because it wasn’t one day. I'm a co-producer, so I was on every negotiation call. When they gave us the first fuzzy offer of the August Wilson Theater, I said no. I did not want the pressure of being first. Hell no, put me two weeks after the Lion-fucking-King! I knew it was a career-defining moment, but after COVID, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, I didn’t want to open up with a play about a lynching. So I said if I'm going first, I'm going to write something that fills me with joy. That was my “yes.”
Was being a co-producer non-negotiable?
Yes. I told my team that this was not happening unless I was a producer. I mean, it's a lot more work. The only reason my hair is pink is because it’s actually grey.
You have not arrived at this moment without credentials: You have a Masters, an MFA, a plethora of theater awards and honors, and experience teaching at the collegiate level. Through it all, was playwriting always the plan?
Writing, yes. But where I am now is just a beautiful surprise. I graduated from NYU in 2008, the year the housing crisis happened. It was a terrible year to graduate with an MFA, nobody was paying for art. I had to scramble to get a job and figured I would only be at it for a couple of semesters. I ended up staying for eight years. There were certainly points where I opted to stop writing and focus on my job. I would have conversations like, “Maybe this theater thing just won’t happen for me. It’s time to quit trying and pursue something that makes more money, that’s more logical.” But I’m stubborn. I didn’t do that.
Does the beautiful surprise add to the plan? Or completely alter it?
It alters it because now I'm thinking seriously about Broadway as a space. My entire career, I have described my work as epic and large-scale. But it wasn’t until I saw it on a Broadway stage that I was like, “Huh! Yeah, this actually is epic.” I just needed the space to show it! It’s a beautiful new horizon, and I know that there’s power in it.
What does power mean to you?
The thing I’m learning as a Black woman is that those few little moments when you do have a lot of power, nobody tells you about it. Everybody’s looking out for themselves. So if you're somebody who's never historically come from power, you don't recognize it, but power is the opportunity to change. I have power right now to change my industry. That's why all of our actors get a wellness stipend, and we don’t ask how they use it. That’s a change that I'm proud of and a direct result of me being a producer in the room where these conversations are happening. The play depicts Black male trauma, and they’re doing it eight times a week. I mean, eight times a week! I’m actually mad I didn’t get one for myself.
How do you take care of yourself then?
Stillness, therapy, marijuana, and more stillness, shit. At the end of the day, I'm a Pisces. If I could sit in the corner and dream and cry, I would. But I’m not gonna sit by and watch other people gain power while I don’t. After I spent how many years writing this play? Nuh uh. That to me is self care, self respect.
Who is your support system?
Chosen family, real family, of course, but I do not want to overlook the energy of our ancestors. Zora Neale Hurston wrote a book called Moses. I bought an original, signed copy of it. When I come home to hold it, I’m like: This woman held this book in her hands. [Laughs.] Yeah, I can write some pages today. They remind me that I’m not here by accident, and I’m never alone.
What’s a useful piece of advice you’d give to the younger Antoinette who first started jotting down the words of this play?
The same thing I tell myself today: Do affirmations out loud in the morning. Tell yourself that you are loved and doing a great job. Despite what it looks like, you’re moving forward. Sometimes, that move is internal. Don’t be so hard on yourself because you are literally magic. Black women? We are the magic, and not because of what we make. But because of who we’ve been and who we are. I mean, therapy is great but when you fix your mind to tell yourself that you are valuable at the beginning of every day?! Whew!
Pass Over is now playing at the August Wilson Theatre for a limited engagement through October 10, 2021.
Brittani Samuel is a Caribbean-American arts journalist, dramatic writer, and theater administrator based in New York. To read some of her published work, visit this link. To chat about how much she loves Rihanna, visit her on Instagram: @brittaniidiannee.
This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Condé Nast