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:

 

 

 

Desperation, desire & cruelty in the ferocious, electric, heart-breaking A Streetcar Named Desire

Amy Rutherford and Mac Fyfe. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper sets the stage on fire with a slow burn of desperation, desire and cruelty in its ferocious, electric, heart-breaking production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by AD Weyni Mengesha, assisted by Tanya Rintoul, and running at the Young Centre. The contemporary take on the Williams classic highlights the class, race and gender issues that make for simmering, then explosive tensions as a delicate, fragile woman finds herself adrift in the loud, bright, hard world of an urban working class neighbourhood.

When we first see Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford), she stands alone with her suitcase on a dimly lit, mostly bare stage. Action, sound and light erupt around her as the sights, music and ethnically diverse people of a big city take over the stage, setting up Stanley and Stella’s two-room apartment in New Orleans. It’s a dynamic, startling visual representation of culture shock for a woman who grew up on a plantation estate in rural Mississippi; and whose only contact with people of colour would have been household servants. Her gentle, crisp world of southern privilege now exchanged for the hard, steamy environment of a working class neighbourhood, she is alone and must rely on others to survive.

With the help of Stella’s upstairs neighbour and landlady Eunice (played with warmth and a suffering-no-fools edge by Akosua Amo-Adem), Blanche finds her way into Stella and Stanley’s apartment—and is mortified to learn that her sister is living in two rooms, separated by a sheer curtain. Stella (Leah Doz) is overjoyed and surprised to see her sister; Stanley (Mac Fyfe) is friendly, but on guard, and wonders how long she’ll be staying. Blanche, a high school English teacher, both withholds and reveals the reason for her stay, confiding to Stella that their childhood home and estate is lost, gambled away over the years by careless ancestors and lately needed to pay for the funerals of their last surviving family members. Stanley’s suspicions about Blanche’s motives for being there are piqued when he learns this, thinking Blanche may have swindled them out of their share of the estate.

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Foreground, clockwise from top: Lindsay Owen Pierre, Mac Fyfe, Gregory Prest & Sebastian Marziali. Background: Oliver Dennis, SATE & Kaleb Horn. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Blanche looks upon this loud, hard new world with distaste and even contempt, trying in her own small way to brighten the place. Her description of Stanley and his poker pals reads like a field guide in the wild—and she fears her dear, sweet sister has “gone native”. Escaping into drink and reminiscences that are part memory, part fantasy, she is exhausted, desperate and grasping for a solution; she can’t go home and has nowhere else to go. She finds momentary distraction with the paper boy (Kaleb Horn), who possibly reminds her of her tragically lost girlhood love; and hope and a kindred spirit in Mitch (a boyish, bashful turn from Gregory Prest), Stanley’s long-time army buddy, over for a poker game with friends (Sebastian Marziali and Lindsay Owen Pierre). But, as Stanley unearths and reveals Blanche’s secrets, her world becomes even more unravelled—ultimately falling to pieces as he exerts power over her in the most brutal and cruel ways. Betrayed by those in whom she sought refuge, and her hopes for a new life destroyed, she must rely on the kindness of strangers (Oliver Dennis as the Doctor and SATE as the Nurse).

Mengesha’s direction takes the piece on a gradual crescendo toward its final explosive finale, with early moments of comic lightness fading into cruelty and darkness as Blanche’s past is exposed. And the multitasking ensemble is instrumental in creating atmosphere and flavour—including serving up some hot jazz, featuring SATE on sizzling vocals, and Marziali, Pierre, Dennis and Horn on various instruments (music direction by Mike Ross and sound design by Debashis Sinha). The sheet metal on the walls surrounding the playing area is a sharp contrast to the relative warmth of the apartment and its sparse, distressed furnishings (set design by Lorenzo Savoini and lighting design by Kimberly Purtell). And Rachel Forbes’ present-day costuming brings the story front and centre into the now of a city so modern, yet still so primal.

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Mac Fyfe & Leah Doz. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning, searing performances from Rutherford, Fyfe and Doz. Rutherford’s Blanche is a picture of wilting southern charm and privilege, the gentility and flirtation both a mask for the darkness and secrets beneath, and an armor against a world that feels hard, menacing and foreign to such a delicate, fragile soul. Feeling and fearing the relentless march of time and age, Blanche employs desire, magic and fantasy as a balm against death, trauma and desperation—like she says, desire is the opposite of death. Misunderstood, slut-shamed and betrayed, her final moments are deeply poignant and heart-wrenching to witness. Fyfe gives a finely crafted, nuanced performance as Stanley; an alpha male capable of explosive brute force, there’s sweetness and a lost boy quality to the man, especially evident in his relationship with Stella—where outbursts of rage turn to contrite, wailing pleas for reconciliation. Neither sophisticated nor educated, Stanley has good instincts and smarts; but his drive to dominate weaponizes his knowledge. Doz is both fierce and heartbreaking as Stella; caught in the middle between her beloved sister and a husband she’s crazy for, Stella is forced into the role of pacifier and peacemaker. More adaptable and resilient than her sister, Stella takes this new urban life in stride, rolling with the punches, and savouring the good times with the loved ones and music that surround her. But, in the end, taking Stanley’s side is devastating for both Blanche and herself, as well as for Mitch, who is also stuck in a Madonna/whore perspective of women.

The city is a hard place for a fragile soul. And while some may lose their troubles in music, liquor and sex—there still exists a clear divide on who is and is not allowed to dance away from death and toward desire.

A Streetcar Named Desire continues at the Young Centre until October 27; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out actor Amy Rutherford’s Artist Perspective piece in Intermission Magazine.