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Broadway’s relaunch now set for Aug. 4 with the scalding drama ‘Pass Over’

Namir Smallwood, front, and Jon Michael Hill in Lincoln Center Theater’s 2018 production of “Pass Over.” (Jeremy Daniel)
correction

An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed two quotes to playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu. It was director Danya Taymor who said: “For a playwright to have their work on Broadway changes the life of the play in perpetuity. I’ve always known in my bones that was its destiny,” as well as, “That play was on Broadway, and because it was on Broadway, it’s known throughout the world.” This version has been updated.

NEW YORK — Broadway's return moves up an entire month — to Aug. 4 — with the announcement Tuesday that the first show back will be a new play: Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's "Pass Over." With its off-Broadway cast and director reprising their roles, the 85-minute play, which revolves around two young Black men, took inspiration from both "Waiting for Godot" and the killing of Trayvon Martin.

“Pass Over,” at the August Wilson Theatre, now comes in sooner than “Hadestown,” the Tony-winning musical that is set to begin performances Sept. 2. That show slid into the first-back slot after three mammoth musicals — “Wicked,” “Hamilton” and “The Lion King” — declared they were restarting Sept. 14. All of these plans, and those of about 20 other producers, have arisen as government officials have lifted coronavirus-prompted restrictions on public gatherings.

The producers of “Pass Over” stress that the intention was not to win some sort of contest — there are risks in being early in the returning lineup, as health and safety measures will be newly implemented. But having the relaunch christened by a drama rather than a long-running musical repaints the picture a bit of what Broadway might be in this time of rebirth. And that the play, first produced at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2017, addresses issues of race and justice won’t be lost on anyone seeking a Broadway more open to such stories and to more artists of color. (Spike Lee filmed the Chicago production, which was then streamed by Amazon Prime Video.)

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“For a playwright to have their work on Broadway changes the life of the play in perpetuity,” director Danya Taymor said in a Zoom interview with Nwandu. “I’ve always known in my bones that was its destiny.”

Taymor cited Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” as a precursor. “That play was on Broadway,” she said, “and because it was on Broadway, it’s known throughout the world.”

The Broadway production — for which Nwandu has made major revisions, including concerning the life-or-death fate of one of the young men — reunites the cast and design team of a 2018 version that Taymor directed at Lincoln Center Theater. It is existential tragicomedy transposed to a blighted city street, with Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood playing the men stuck, like Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, in time and place. A White police officer played by Gabriel Ebert applies an ominous air of violent possibility to the proceedings.

“It’s not without challenges and really hard conversations and pain,” Taymor said of putting “Pass Over” together. “I’ve been talking a lot about this idea of like ‘clean pain,’ where it hurts but it’s not bad for you.”

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“Pass Over” is a Broadway debut for both Nwandu and Taymor, as well as some of the show’s designers: Wilson Chin has devised the sets, Sarafina Bush the costumes, Marcus Doshi the lighting and Justin Ellington the sound design. Ebert won a Tony Award for his performance in the musical “Matilda”; Hill was Tony-nominated for his work in the Tracy Letts play “Superior Donuts.”

Nwandu is forthcoming about her writing process and how the people around her can change how she sees her work. Her mother, she said, worried that in its original form, “Pass Over” was too depressing. The playwright’s own mood shifted over the years, which may account for the more hopeful tone the play has apparently taken on.

“I’m less hopeful about the world,” Nwandu said, referring to events that have transpired since the play’s Chicago debut. “But I’m more hopeful, in myself.”

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