Waiting for the American Dream in the provocative, disturbing, razor-sharp Pass Over

Kaleb Alexander & Mazin Elsadig. Set design by Julia Kim. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Costume design by Vanessa Fischer. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

 

Obsidian Theatre takes us to the edge of the world in an urban Black neighbourhood in America with its provocative, mind-blowing production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Jay Northcott, and running at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Disturbing, thought-provoking and razor-sharp, it’s a 21st century Waiting for Godot, infused with the hope and resilience of The Book of Exodus, as two young Black men hang out on a street corner, making plans to better their situation and get to the Promised Land.

Before the action starts, we’re immersed in this microcosm of the modern-day Black experience in America—via Julia Kim’s effective, minimalist set design; Chris Malkowski’s lighting and Miquelon Rodriguez’s sound design. A lone streetlight, a fire hydrant and a wooden industrial spool on a stylized L-shaped street corner with an exaggerated curb. The edge of the world. A solitary figure in a hoodie sits, sleeping against the base of the streetlight, his back to us; a man appears, alternately pacing and sitting. The sounds of a classical music piece, ranging from tranquil to majestic, accompanied by the whoosh of passing traffic, as the light wanes and the streetlight glows to life. An object on the sidewalk, off to the right of the man—a lost sneaker, a rock?

Moses (Kaleb Alexander) awakens to see his friend Kitch (Mazin Elsadig). The dynamic between them creates an atmosphere of restlessness, wheels spinning and going nowhere, as they settle into an easy, familiar banter. And then, crackling with electric promise, Moses shares his hopes, dreams and plan to make something of himself and get out—out and away across the river to the Promised Land. Visions of champagne, caviar and top 10 lists dance in their heads as they speak of a better life to come, reveling in the possibilities that lie ahead.

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Kaleb Alexander, Alex McCooeye & Mazin Elsadig. Set design by Julia Kim. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Costume design by Vanessa Fischer. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

Their reverie is continually interrupted by the abrupt, brief and jarring light and sound of a police cruiser; the cops constantly on patrol, looking for non-existent trouble and repeatedly harassing young Black men who are doing nothing wrong. Each time this occurs, Moses and Kitch assume the position: hands in the air, sometimes dropping to their knees. They’ve lost count as to how many friends have been killed. A stranger appears; the whitest white man you’ve ever seen (Alex McCooeye as Mister)—I’m talking 1950s suburban “golly gee” white. Carrying a picnic basket, he got lost on his way to his mother’s. Initially met with wary indifference, his Lord Bountiful offer of food is too good for the two friends to pass up; and like Mary Poppins and her bottomless carpet bag, he produces a veritable feast from his basket, including an apple pie.

Contrasted and complemented to the encounter with Mister, Moses and Kitch are set upon by the local beat cop (McCooeye as Officer), on patrol and looking for an excuse to hassle, or even shoot, a Black man—who he views as shiftless, lazy and stupid. “To serve and protect” only applies to people who look, act and speak like him. Left to themselves again, discouraged, weary and beaten down, Moses begins to question his original plan for exodus, and hatches a desperate alternate plan for himself and Kitch.

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Mazin Elsadig & Kaleb Alexander. Set design by Julia Kim. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Costume design by Vanessa Fischer. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

Stunning, compelling and electric performances from the cast in this uncomfortable, sometimes satirical, and instructive piece of theatre. Alexander gives a passionate, charismatic performance as Moses; living up to his namesake, Moses is a natural leader, inspiring those around him with the hope of better things to come—but not without self-doubt and internal conflict. Elsadig’s playfulness, warmth and swagger as Kitch perfectly complements Alexander’s Moses; Kitch is more than just a friend—he’s a confidante, a brother. While Moses tends to be more of a cerebral ideas man with a dream to manifest, Kitch is driven by more pragmatic, visceral concerns; but he’s nonetheless inspired and willing to follow his friend, based on love and trust.

McCooeye offers two fascinating and telling portraits of white male power. Mister is a patronizing, clueless entitled white man whose hospitable demeanour is peppered with microaggressions and judgements of Black culture—insidious, “polite” racism. The white person who claims to never even think about using “the n word’, but who calls out Black people for using the term—wondering, if they can use it, why can’t he? As Officer, he’s the picture of the racist asshole cop who relishes abusing his power; keeping Black people “in their place”, he’s the embodiment of the darker, shameless side of the white-dominated power structure. Moses and Kitch speak the language of streetwise urban Black youth; and internalized racism makes them question whether it would be better to adopt a more white manner and speech, and assimilate into the safety of the dominant culture.

From plantation to ghetto, Pass Over provides ample evidence that white-powered systemic racism is alive and well in 2019—and and it will make allies question the true nature of their allyship. The apple pie of the American Dream is held out under the noses of those who are perpetually barred, blocked and beaten away from that dream, then taken away before they have a chance to taste it. It’s an unforgettable, uncomfortable, at times shocking, look into the hopes, dreams and lived experiences of the Black community—which is as it should be in the case of discourse on deep-seated systemic racism in America and, by extension, Canada. Make no mistake, Canada is far from innocent in this regard. And with the growing emergence of a new alt-right, emboldened by extreme right-wing leadership around the world, this is definitely not just an urban street corner issue—nor does it only impact the Black community.

Pass Over continues at Buddies until November 10; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-975-8555.

For additional context, check out this Artist Perspective piece by Obsidian producer Luke Reece in Intermission Magazine.

And check out the trailer:

 

 

 

Mental health takes centre stage in the mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s)

Skipping Stones Theatre gives us a new, contemporary take on the Shakespeare classic brings mental health front and centre with its mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s), directed by Sean O’Brien, supplemented by additional Shakespearian text; and opening last night to a sold out house at b current Studio in Artscape Wychwood Barns. Here, we have a Hamlet who’s literally and figuratively beside himself, played by two actors; a young man struggling with emerging Bipolar I as his world crumbles around him.

I never get tired of seeing how different theatre companies interpret and adapt Hamlet. Opening with “To be or not to be…,” Hamlet’s (Tristan Claxton and Kate McArthur) emerging mental illness is established off the top of Hamlet(s). The double casting turns soliloquies into Hamlet’s conversations with himself; and the effective tag team nature of his dialogue reveals a troubled, fractured mind rolling through manic, mixed and depressive episodes—with McArthur’s side of Hamlet taking on an inner voice quality.

This adaptation also examines the responses of friends and family to a loved one’s mental health crisis. Ophelia (Breanna Maloney) is featured more prominently, taking on a more active role; mindful and concerned about Hamlet’s welfare, she enlists the assistance of Hamlet’s friend Horatio (Liz Der). Conflicted and torn about telling her father Polonius (Mike Vitorovich) about Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, and unable to find another way to help him, Ophelia chooses to place her trust in a parent; this makes her subsequent mental breakdown following Polonius’s death—at Hamlet’s hand—all the more heartbreaking. And one can see how and why Horatio would consider taking her own life after all attempts at helping her friend have failed—and those who were supposed to help and care for him have only betrayed or neglected Hamlet.

Claudius (Tim MacLean) and Gertrude (Shalyn McFaul) are also concerned—he out of fear of exposure and losing his ill-gotten throne, and she out of guilt and neglected love—but are after a quick fix for Hamlet’s problem. Enter Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz (Felix Beauchamp) and Guildenstern (Tamara Freeman), summoned to cheer Hamlet up; but instead of genuinely listening to Hamlet, they offer mere positive spins to counter his intimations of what ails him.

Unable to level off and organize his rapid-fire thoughts and emotions, Hamlet’s in no shape to enact revenge on Claudius for the murder of his father. Directly responsible for the death of Polonius, and perhaps also feeling responsible for Ophelia’s subsequent breakdown and death, Hamlet eventually faces off with the vengeful Laertes (Erin Eldershaw) in what’s being sold as a friendly fencing match. Surprisingly calm and ready for death—one gets the impression that he may be opting for suicide by vendetta.

Remarkable, gripping, lazer-focused performances from Claxton and McArthur as the dual Hamlets; both revealing a full range of struggling, conflicted emotional and psychological experience—from dejected despair, to playful antics, quixotic exchanges and a-ha flashes of inspiration. It’s raw, real and present—fascinating, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking to watch.

Equally fine work from the rest of the ensemble, with Maloney’s ethereal, loving Ophelia and Der’s sweet, nerdy Horatio clearly the only ones who are truly on Hamlet’s side; desperate to help their friend, they’re both frustrated and baffled as they grasp for a solution. MacLean gives a slick, corporate edge to the pompous, entitled Claudius; and there’s a tinge of melancholy to McFaul’s cool, detached Gertrude. Vitorovich gives us some great comic turns as the intelligent but verbose Polonius and the cheeky, sharp-witted Gravedigger; and Eldershaw offers up compelling performances as the irreverent, fiery Laertes and the divalike First Player. And Beauchamp and Freeman are a great pair as the affable but duplicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are more concerned about serving at Claudius’s pleasure than they are with helping their friend.

Those who aren’t protective of Hamlet’s health and welfare aren’t necessarily bad people—some are merely self-serving, clueless, in denial or negligent. And even those who strive to truly help find themselves spinning their wheels due to lack of awareness and subsequently missing what resources may be employed to help. Just like real life. A long neglected aspect of our health care system, we’re gradually seeing mental health come to the forefront. More of us are realizing that mental health is health.

Hamlet(s) continues in the b current Studio Theatre until November 24, with performances tonight (November 17) and November 22-24; please note the 7:30pm curtain time. Advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue, with a short run—at the door.