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Pandemic

Playwright Antoinette Nwandu is healing her audience, and herself

The pandemic collided with professional and personal upheavals that made her rewrite her script

One in a series on the arts world emerging from the coronavirus pandemic.

The past year has been a roller coaster for playwright Antoinette Nwandu. In early 2020, Nwandu had just gotten back to New York from London after overseeing the opening of her play Pass Over. Then the pandemic hit, shutting down live theater, including her play. A few months later, in July, Nwandu had a miscarriage and had to go to the hospital, where she was placed in the COVID-19 ward.

January came around and she was told Pass Over was going to Broadway. But what should’ve been a celebratory moment was followed by her husband telling her that he wanted a divorce.

Nwandu was raised in the Evangelical Church, and though she no longer belongs to any one congregation, Nwandu considers the sequence of events that happened to her a test.

“In the Bible, bad s— happens to people before the good s—,” said Nwandu. “You either collapse under it, or you rise to meet it.”

Nwandu is speaking via Zoom from Los Angeles, where she is cat-sitting for a friend, working on some screen projects and taking the time to “have a breakdown and just cry.”

“I’m heartbroken. I’m ripped apart,” Nwandu said. She pauses, before adding, more resolutely, “But I got a lot of f—ing energy. And I got a lot of f—ing time to do my job.”

Nwandu is taking this moment as a sign from the universe that she should focus on her career. Pass Over is her Broadway debut and begins performances at the August Wilson Theatre on Aug. 4. Notably, Nwandu will be the first Black writer produced at the August Wilson, which is named after the trailblazing Black playwright. A number of notable Black stars have signed on as producers for Pass Over, including actor Blair Underwood and retired WNBA star Renee Montgomery.

“I come out of the plague, and the universe gives me this opportunity,” Nwandu said. “So I might as well make it exactly what I want it to be.”

The first way Nwandu is doing that is by changing the ending of her play, which is not normal for a work that has already been produced and filmed.

Pass Over is based on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the Exodus story in the Bible. It is about two young Black men, Moses and Kitch, waiting on a street corner, with dreams of leaving the corner and entering the promised land. Yet the forces of white supremacy continually stand in their way, and (spoiler) eventually kill one of them.

Namir Smallwood (bottom) and Jon Michael Hill (top) in Pass Over at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York.

Jeremy Daniel

Nwandu wrote the play in 2013 after the killing of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial. At the time, Nwandu taught public speaking and theater at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, where her students were mostly young Black and brown men. Their energy and the way they spoke helped inform the characters in Pass Over.

The play was first produced in Chicago in 2017 and then staged off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater in 2018. It has since been produced around the U.S. Director Spike Lee filmed the Chicago production for Amazon Prime. (He then hired Nwandu in his writers room for She’s Gotta Have It on Netflix.)

In looking at her play again, Nwandu knew what she didn’t want to see: another Black man being shot. “I can’t watch a man be killed,” she said emphatically. “I know it’s fake. I know it’s catharsis. I’m not saying I regret my play. I’m just saying: Me, for my spirit right now, I can’t do that.”

In the new Broadway version, Moses and Kitch survive. This will also change the overall intent of the play, and whom it is speaking to. When Nwandu first wrote Pass Over, Black Lives Matter had not become a mass movement. Now eight years later — especially after last year with the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the global showcase of support for BLM — Nwandu realized that her play needs to go beyond spreading awareness about police brutality.

“Before I was trying to talk to the people who have power, to say, ‘Look, you have power, the police are on your side. So you people need to stop killing us,’ ” said Nwandu. “But now I think I’m speaking, first and foremost, to Black people. And secondly, to anybody else who wants to get in on what Black people need.”

And what does the audience need? Healing, Nwandu says, especially after the pandemic and the more than 600,000 lives lost in the U.S.

I’m not saying I regret my play. I’m just saying: Me, for my spirit right now, I can’t do that.

“I believe people are going to be coming back to the theater with heavy, heavy hearts,” she said. “People need to mourn. People need to cry. People need to sing. That’s the kind of s— you do in theater and church.”

So instead of a tragedy, Nwandu wants to present a play centering on Black joy and resilience. Nwandu said that when she first wrote Pass Over, she could not imagine a reality where a Black man would encounter a police officer and survive. “All I could see was death, death, death, the death of these young Black men,” she said.

But after the past year, and not wanting to retraumatize her audience, Nwandu is allowing herself to imagine a different, more hopeful story. “This time, people are going to come see this play, and this Black man is not going to die. And maybe if I show you this in a play, maybe it can happen in real life,” she said.

It’s not just text changes. Nwandu is also creating her ideal Broadway. As a producer on this version, Nwandu is making sure it’s affordable, with $30 tickets available for people under 35. There will also be $40 tickets distributed via community partners.

Nwandu has also been advocating for equity backstage. The three actors in Pass Over are making twice the union-mandated minimum Broadway rate of $2,512 a week. They are also receiving a mental health stipend of $250 a week, because dramatizing racism and violence eight times a week can take a heavy toll on an actor.

Namir Smallwood (left) and Jon Michael Hill (right) in Pass Over at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York.

Jeremy Daniel

Nwandu hopes that as the first play to reopen Broadway, Pass Over will help set a standard for a more diverse, fair industry that is welcoming to all. Nwandu is buoyed that she’s one of seven Black playwrights to be produced on Broadway this season, a rare event (the other playwrights are Alice Childress, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Douglas Lyons, Dominique Morisseau, Lynn Nottage and Keenan Scott II). “I want every one of these people to succeed and to open the door for as many people as possible,” Nwandu said.

Yet the playwright is also aware of the cyclical nature of the entertainment industry, and how one year Black voices can be trendy and the next year, it’s back to the majority white status quo. That is why, “for the two minutes that I am a trend, I want to try to f— up as much stuff as possible,” she said with a chuckle.

Nwandu is also aware that healing can be tough when racism continues to be an occupying force in America. But she believes that it is possible, and it takes not just Black people. White people need to understand that racism is their fight, too.

“Are you willing to do whatever it takes?” asked Nwandu. “I think anything could be healed if we’re both willing to work.” She then takes a long pause before adding, “If white America doesn’t want to heal with us, we’re not going to heal as a nation.”

That is why theater is so important to Nwandu, because it brings different people together in one room. Considering that audiences will be emerging from a year of being isolated from other people, Nwandu thinks there’s a greater potential now for theater to be a space to process the collective grief and trauma of the past year and to figure out a new path forward.

“My mandate to continue doing theater is: I want to take the best that I experienced in church,” she said. “And I want to take the best that I experienced in school. Because I do believe, regardless of anything, human beings create spaces where we experience ritual, and where we have the opportunity to experience change. I do believe transformation is possible: It happens at the individual level. No play is gonna change the world. But if I change you at the individual level, you might go out and change the world.”

Diep Tran is a culture critic and editor based in New York City. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News, American Theatre, and Backstage, among other publications. Her Twitter handle is @DiepThought.