WAS it a good play, I asked the woman at the box office. “Have you seen The Prince of Egypt?” she replied. “Well, it’s nothing like that.”
In the small Kiln Theatre in north London, Pass Over also features a lead character called Moses, and is deeply informed by the Book of Exodus. It’s terrific.
Antoinette Nwandu’s play is set on a street corner in an American city. Two young black men are sleeping rough. They joke, they scrap, they dream, and periodically they freeze in fear at some distant sight or sound of which only they are aware.
Moses is played by Paapa Essiedu (the finest Hamlet of the past decade). His Sunday-school teacher taught him the stories of the Bible and believed that he could be the one to lead his generation “across the river” out of the oppression in which they are trapped. He is almost crushed by his own intelligence, because of the foresight that it brings. Gershwyn Eustache, Jnr, is Kitch, poignantly optimistic and unable to keep still.
Into their world come two white men, both played by Alexander Eliot: Mister seems to have wandered in from the 1860s, bringing an ambiguous kindness from the era of the emancipation of the slaves; Ossifer is a foul policeman who personifies the racism that led countless black men to lose their lives at white hands.
The other presiding spirit of the play is Samuel Beckett. The language — mundane but poetic, repetitive but witty — is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. “Dat river don’t part for n*****s like us. We’re Egypt.” It is not coyness that provokes the asterisks. A section of the play is devoted to that word. Which ethnic groups can acceptably use it and which can’t? The black half of the audience found this absolutely hilarious. The white half laughed nervously. And then an unexpected event stopped all laughter dead.
In this remarkable play, there is fun and friendship, but always overshadowed by the threat of violence. Even Robert Jones’s set provides its own commentary: a pedestrian crossing on a filthy sidewalk winks, beckons, and halts. At the climax, there is a scene of surreal transcendence, beautifully staged by Indhu Rubasingham and lit by Oliver Fenwick. The very end is, to be honest, a little preachy. Nevertheless, a shocked audience rose to its feet.
You can buy five front-row tickets to Pass Over for the same price as a front-row ticket for The Prince of Egypt. Take an open mind, a group of friends, and a scrap of faith that there will be a Promised Land.
Pass Over continues at the Kiln Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6, until 21 March. Box office: kilntheatre.com or phone 020 7328 1000.