Kadahj Bennett on SpeakEasy Stage Company's Production of Antoinette Nwandu's 'Pass Over'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday January 3, 2020

Kadahj Bennett points out to EDGE during our interview that Antoinette Nwandu's play "Pass Over" is an absurdist work, but the thing about absurdist theater — and absurdist art of any sort — is that it's actually very serious at the root. It's not just being silly for the sake of being silly.

It's impossible to ignore how "Pass Over" reflects the cyclical nature of human history, with its constant currents of oppression and hope. People historically denied the rewards of their own hard work live for the day when they — or their descendants — will see a "promised land." But that land seems ever out of reach, lost beyond an ocean of callousness and brutality far wider and stormier than any discoverer of continents ever had to brave. The play takes place across two long periods of night, but it also exists outside of time — or, rather, embraces disconnected, still-unresolved eras, including ancient Egypt of the Israelites and the American South of antebellum plantations and post-Civil War Jim Crow atrocities.

Bennett — familiar to Boston area theatergoers from his work with various companies, appearing in Artists' Theater of Boston's "This Place/Displaced," Con Hibernian Hal's production of "With Glittering Eyes," and a string of highly-regarded productions by CompanyOne, including "How We Got On," "Dry Land," "An Octaroon," "Peerless," "The T Party," and "HYPE MAN: a break beat play," Bennett played Verb, the titular "hype man" for a rap group that faces racial and social tensions on the cusp of mainstream success.

Being a lyricist and musical performer himself, as well as an educator, Bennett seemed well suited to the role of Verb, as he now seems a perfect fit for Nwandu's play, in which two young African American men live on the street. Bennett plays Moses, starring opposite Hubens "Bobby" Cius as Kitch. Theirs is an elemental existence, close to the very community that they seem to hover on the edges of; they take turns sleeping and keeping watch, and from time to time they freeze in place, wary, cautious of dangers out in the darkness.

Those dangers can take many forms, and a third actor — Lewis D. Wheeler — embodies two of them. One, a character who has gotten lost while taking a picnic basket to his elderly mother, seems sincerely interested and generous... until that is, darker undertones begin to emanate from him. The other character is a police officer — and we'll not spoil the part he plays in these paragraphs, save to say any reader will instantly, intuitively have a sense where things will go once this character comes onto the scene.

EDGE: You play Moses. He's a very strong character — he seems to be the leader between him and Kitch. Was that the role you'd been interested in from the first? Or was there any thought about you playing Kitch instead of Moses?

Kadahj Bennett: I wanted to play Moses, but when I got there for the audition and I saw all the people who were auditioning — all these awesome Black men in Boston who'd be killing it on the stage — I immediately was like, "Maybe I'll have to be a Kitch!" In my mind I was set to play either one, but I was totally stoked that I got to play Moses.

EDGE: How did you hear about and come to be drawn to this particular production?

Kadahj Bennett: I heard about the play before I even knew SpeakEasy was doing it. I've always had a passion for absurdity, so I'm a big fan of "Waiting for Godot" or "The Bald Soprano," and so when I heard that somebody had written an absurdist piece that [featured] melanated people, I was super-excited to see what that was like.

When I first read it, it felt like "The Boondocks" meets "Waiting for Godot." I was super-amped about it. And then by the time I got to the ending of it, I was super-furious. The play really stuck with me. Then, to hear that it was happening here in Boston, in the South End, at the Calderwood of all places, and SpeakEasy was producing it — the absurdity level continued to rise with me, so I was super-interested. That was what drew me to come in and do it. Plus, the piece is very timely, obviously.


EDGE: Yeah — no kidding! "Pass Over" has so many levels of Biblical and cultural meaning. It suggests that the power structures in America are Pharaoh, and it also creates — for me anyway — the image of an overwhelming force threatening the sons of the land. You just hope that the Angel of Death passes over your house. How closely do those parallels strike to home for you in your own life?

Kadahj Bennett: I live in Dorchester, and in the past six months there have been maybe seven deaths on my block alone. I was at a rehearsal one evening and my brother called me, shaken up and scared, making sure I was all right, and he told me I might want to take my time getting home because our next-door neighbor was shot in his car out in front of his house, and the police had taped everything off.

EDGE: Oh my god, that's horrible.

Kadahj Bennett: Yes. So... yeah, there's a lot of gun violence that's happening in my neighborhood in particular, and it hits very, very close to home. That idea that you're hoping that notion passes over and you're safe... bullets don't have names on them. It's out of your control. It's scary like that. But what's also something that's relatable in the story for me is that the playwright talks about his Moses and Kitch are two unremarkable Black boys, and that notion is kinda ridiculous to me; as an educator and a teacher I am always trying to find ways to pull out the creativity in my students, and they hear this notion of "unremarkable Black boys," and how that notion of somebody being unremarkable means they are disposable is frightening. So, being a teacher and thinking that's how the system views people is terrifying; and then, also, the notion that having the Angel of Death pass over you in your neighborhood is also terrifying.

EDGE: Does it feel to you like we actually have made any progress in the last half-century, or have the last few years really just revealed that much our "progress" was either too fragile or never real to begin with?

Kadahj Bennett: I hear that. I feel like... and no shot to anything or anyone... but the Obama age was this [time when] everybody thought that things were solved, everybody thought that, "Equality is here, let's go." Which is ridiculous, because every other day there was some kind of racist news coming out about him not being born here, or some caricature [being held up to mock the president]. Now with everything that's bubbling up and coming to a head, and people protesting, and people being shot in the streets, we also do have — which I think is beautiful — is this whole resurgence of, like, "Black is Beautiful." Melanin Poppin', Black Boy Joy, Black Girl Magic...all this new art that's coming out; the idea of "blackout theater" — I feel like we might have been lulled and content for a minute, and some people felt that there was no reason for us to keep pushing toward the promised land because things were looking nice, and somebody got to sit in the pharaoh's seat. But I think that the fire is kind of lit back again. Even though these are turbulent times, I think that beautiful stuff is going to come out of this chaos.

EDGE: On the page, the interplay between Kitch and Moses is very funny, and also seems like that of two people who literally cannot survive without each other. How have you and co-star Hubens "Bobby" Cius worked to bring that energy onto the stage?

Kadahj Bennett: Bobby is cool! Bobby is really fun people, he's a ball of energy. This is my first time working with him. We were a little nervous at first that we didn't think that the chemistry was going to shine through. Apparently, that was a surprise to Monica [White Ndounou], because during the audition she thought that we had known each other for years. But also, in the rehearsal process we spend at least twenty minutes doing physical mirror work and playing games, and doing word play — fooling around, trying to really build up that chemistry for each other, to get that brotherly vibe going, That really has been fun.

I will say, though, he has been keeping me on my toes! I'm a 30-year-old who smokes cigarettes, and he's a dancer and he's younger than me and he's moving all over the place, so it's like a master class trying to keep up with that young bull.

EDGE: I'm almost afraid to ask what it's like working with Lewis D. Wheeler, who plays two characters. Lewis can be intense. I imagine he's scary when he wants to be.

Kadahj Bennett: He probably could be. He's such a softie! He brings in cookies and chocolate during rehearsal and is always giggling. It's so weird — it's a complete opposite from either of the roles that he's playing. And the way that we have the rehearsal room set up, we breathe each in and we breathe each other out of scenes. What happens there just stays there. He hasn't been scary yet — I think when we get into the space and we add the costumes and the colors and the intense eye contact and sound effects, maybe then it's be a little frightening. But Lewis is fun people.

EDGE: The play is full of instances of a certain word that is highly charged — there's even a warning about it at the SpeakEasy Stage website. That word must appear hundreds of time in the script, to the point that it seems like its constant repetition is part of that absurdist vibe... was that something you found problematic? Were there discussions around it?

Kadahj Bennett: We talked about it a little bit, and...yeah, "Boondocks"-esque, again. Some people would be immediately put off by that — "Why do they keep saying that and saying it?" But if you listen past it, there's so much more happening. Also, it's kind of a vocal tic for them, the way some people will say "like" — "like, like, like... like... like." And then there are the "Um" people. [Moses and Kitch] just happen to say the "N" word in that space. But then, what's also really cool about it is the absurdity of it, where the "N" word becomes so malleable it could mean anything — right? It makes you think of "Ubu Roi," which is the absurdist version of Macbeth, where he's always saying "shitter." It doesn't mean anything, but it sounds like you're talking about the toilet or something inappropriate like that. Audiences were appalled — but after a while, it became hilarious, and it became a thing that tied into it. It became a motive piece for King Ubu in that play.

The language is silly, and it's sound, and it can be malleable like that. But at the same time, which is really dope, that word has a powerful history, and that word can be dumb triggering, and these two characters in the paly ore often undergoing some kind of emotional triggering that happens to them — some time of convulsion — so if we're doing something that's triggering you all, that's fine, because we're up on stage being triggered, too. There's no intermission because we don't get to take a break, and neither does the audience. It's almost immersive theater in that way.

EDGE: That's true — there are many moment in the play where Moses and Kitch suddenly stop and become apprehensive — like there's a predator lurking just out of sight, and they are picking up on it. Nobody else senses that, but it's such a jerk into another space, out of that absurdist vibe and out of that open verse poetry that they're speaking.

Kadahj Bennett: We talked about the idea of "the fear of déjà vu." I don't know if anybody else felt that before, but if you do suddenly stumble upon a moment where it's like, "I've been here before," and if it is tied to trauma — or maybe generational trauma — especially since we are, in the play, living in three time planes [contemporary, the slavery era, and ancient Egypt] — then maybe that's, like, a lot of what it is.

EDGE: The script contains directions about the language and how to approach it, including the directive that the language here is actually supposed to be a form of music. How are you going about that?

Kadahj Bennett: Oh, there's definitely a rhythm to it. I was terrified at first, trying to figure out how to memorize it, because it is so cyclical and things repeat often, so I kept finding myself often getting into a loop, where I start to find myself doing one scene and then it would morph into another scene, and then I'd go, "Oh, that's not the right response." But if you do start to get it down, there is a rhythm to the way that they speak, and so that's kind of what helps or informs you of where you're at. There is a musicality to it. It's not necessarily Shakespearean, with iambic pentameter, but there is a certain bounce to it.

EDGE: Speaking of déjà vu, are you finding that there might be some kinship between the lyricism of this play and the role that you had earlier with CompanyOne's "Hype Man: A Break Beat Play," where you played Verb?

Kadahj Bennett: I could say yes. I feel like there are some break beat elements to "Pass Over," like the way that they speak. But what's funny to me is I feel like Verb has a moment where he's talking about how he can't believe that the police shot a kid, and he talks about "dumb young man shit," and I feel like that is what Moses and Kitch kind of embody. They are Verb before he started to go to therapy and got himself together. So I think it's kind of cool how they both speak in similar rhythms, but also that's a Black thing — to be able to have that style, that rhythm, to our talk. It's musical.

EDGE: Being a lyricist yourself, how closely do these two roles align with interest in music and lyrical expression?

Kadahj Bennett: We haven't really been playing with the musicality of this play too much, but we do... again, it goes back to my love of absurdity, and improv as well. A lot of our back and forth where it's quick, snappy one liners is trying to figure out the rhythm in that, or trying to figure out the dance to our tantrum. There are some parts that do feel like musical performance, but it doesn't feel like it is rap or spoken word. It's more like beat box percussive. The words are more like beat boxing as opposed to rapping.

EDGE This is your SpeakEasy debut — is it also your first production with the Front Porch Arts Collective?

Kadahj Bennett: I have done readings for both companies. I've been part of SpeakEasy's Boston Project for the past three years, doing readings of, like, "Old White Sugar Daddy" or "Just Cause." And with Front Porch Arts Collective, I did a whole bunch of readings with them, too, like when they read all those Marcus Gardley plays before they did "Black Odyssey." I have connections with both of them.

EDGE: Front Porch Arts Collective is doing some really exciting things.

Kadahj Bennett: I'm super-amped that Front Porch is, like, the pop-up now. And not to be like that, but I love that because Black is the new thing, theater companies feel that they want to totally tap into it. And I'm happy that the Front Porch Arts Collective are the people who are being brought in to help handle that work with care. Everybody in that collective is just dope people, they're people that I have seen before on the stage or working behind the scenes, and so for them to be the home base for all these different dope, Black, melanated productions that have been happening in Boston — I'm really appreciative of that.

EDGE: What else are you working on, either in terms of theater or writing songs?

Kadahj Bennett: Yeah, I am working on some music — if I could find some extra hours to put into the day, that would be beautiful. I have a band, Danceallulia, some Berkeley folks, and we are trying to put some stuff together. And I do a lot of teaching over at Zumix, a music nonprofit. But I don't know — currently, right now, I'm just steeped in the world of "Pass Over." I can't really see beyond the opening of the play.

"Pass Over" runs Jan. 3 — 25. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/pass-over/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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