Antoinette Nwandu: On Playwriting and the Promised Land


“Pass Over” Joins Biblical and Present Times

“A courtyard in the projects, any Ghetto USA.  But also a plantation.  But also Egypt, a city built by slaves.”

NwanduThat’s the setting description for Antoinette Nwandu’s new play “Pass Over” which premieres as part of the Cherry Lane Mentor Project on April 13.  The Mentor Project pairs emerging playwrights with established dramatists leading up to a workshop production at the Cherry Lane’s Studio theater in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Nwandu is the final of three mentees to pass through this season’s program, following Christopher Gabriel Nunez and Sarah Einspanier.  Nwandu, a 36-year-old native of Los Angeles, has developed the play under the guidance of mentor Katori Hall, who passed through the Mentor Project in 2006 under Lynn Nottage.“A courtyard in the projects, any Ghetto USA.  But also a plantation.  But also Egypt, a city built by slaves.”

“Pass Over” melds the ancient world of the Bible with present day to examine the fear that black men have lived with for centuries. Her interactions with students at the Borough of Manhattan Community College informed her understanding of the constant state of fear that black men inhabit:

“All of my students have been stopped, this whole stop and frisk thing,” Nwandu said.  “To have to live a life where you’re constantly being targeted as a threat, a potential criminal, somebody who needs to be regulated…”

Modern Pharoah and Modern Moses

She connected the fear today’s black men feel to the Biblical story of Moses.  God pledged the Promised Land to Moses and the Children of Israel, but threw a major wrench in the equation: they had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years before getting there.

“Connecting that wilderness, wandering with the fearful wandering of young black men in America, where it’s like, When do we get to the Promised Land?” she said.  “If you’re on year 22 of a 40-year journey, you’re like,  This is not working out so great; I thought I would be there already!”

Nwandu’s protagonists Moses and Kitch express their desire to “Git up off dis block” over and over, but seem helplessly stuck.  Will the Red Sea ever part for men like them?  After years of slavery in the United States, after years of Jim Crow laws, after years of police brutality, is there a Promised Land waiting for today’s young black men?  How can Moses and Kitch get there?

Theater is Place for “Pass Over”

She hopes to write for TV and film in the future, but knew that a play was the right medium for “Pass Over.”

“For a story that tackles fear and tackles these young men attempting to get off the block, but being assaulted and inundated by fears without and within, that’s an experience that I want people to have collectively,” Nwandu said.

Unlike the dark anonymity of a movie theater or the solitary confinement of watching TV on an iPad, you experience a play as an individual within a group. The art is alive.  If you’re in the front row, they might even spit on you.  The emotions expressed by an actor in a play vibrate in 3D.  Light changes illuminate the other patrons.  Because viewers experience the themes of a play within a group, they cannot help but consider how those themes affect the other individuals present.

She has rewritten about 70% of the script during the Mentor Project process, honing an increasingly tragi-comedic tone under the guidance of Mentor Katori Hall.

Hall Mentors with Balance

“She’s done a really good job of being hands on and hands off,” Nwandu said.

Hall has provided a fresh pair of eyes when Nwandu feels lost in the woods creatively, but has also modeled for her how to be a leader in a room full of actors and designers.

“Being a writer alone in a room?  I can do that for days,” Nwandu said.  “But then taking all of that to the team and communicating with the team is just where [Hall’s] been a godsend.”

Hall the former Mentee

Hall rose to national prominence after passing through the Mentor Project herself with her play “Hoodoo Love”. The work went on to receive a full production at the Cherry Lane in 2007.  Her play “The Mountaintop” played on Broadway in 2011 with Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Basset as a maid/angel that spends time with MLK on the eve of his death.  Her play “Hurt Village” won the 2011 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Hall then adapted the play for film at the Sundance Screenwriter’ Lab.

 Her play “Our Lady of Kibeho” had its World Premiere at New York’s Signature Theater in 2014. In 2015 her play “The Blood Quilt” had its World Premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.. Nwandu work has provided roles for African Americans in an industry that all too often does not. Furthermore,  her work has explored the history and struggles of the African American community.

Empathy Connects Nwandu and Mentor

“I think that her mandate and her mission to close the empathy gap specifically for African Americans and for their stories is a really beautiful one,” Nwandu said.

She thinks that her and Hall share a common goal of empathy, but take different routes to get there:

“My journey is to create empathy for myself,” Nwandu said.  “If I can put out into the world my own journey from fear to faith, from self-loathing to self acceptance, then hopefully it will spur in other people that same kind of empathy.”

Hall and Nwandu met about a decade ago at New York University.  While Nwandu earned her MFA, Hall acted in some of her work.  Hall’s playwriting career took off while Nwandu worked as a theater critic. That was before the self-described “late bloomer” truly committed to playwriting later in life.  When Hall selected “Pass Over” in a blind reading process for the Mentor Project, she was surprised to learn Nwandu was the author.  

“For us to come full circle now is just a really sweet and wonderful thing,” Nwandu said.

Next for “Pass Over” and Nwandu

After “Pass Over” plays at the Cherry Lane, Chicago is next. It will grace the stage at Steppenwolf in summer of 2017 starring “Elementary” actor Jon Michael Hill 

Nwandu is currently writing a play about wellness as part of the Naked Angels Issues Project Lab.  The new work explores the interplay of different types of wellness.

“If the country is not well, then how does that make me feel unwell?” Nwandu asks.   “If the Earth is unwell, or someone in my family is unwell, or if my community is unwell, how does that affect me?”

Nwandu deleted the first play she ever wrote, unready to share her work publicly.  “Pass Over” explores not only the fear experienced by the black community, but represents Nwandu’s journey through her personal fears into a place she is ready to share her inner territory with the world.  

“Pass Over” plays at the Cherry Lane from April 13 to April 23. For tickets click here 


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