When Namir Smallwood took the stage for the first preview of his first show on Broadway, the audience gave him and his “Pass Over” co-star Jon Michael Hill a thunderous standing ovation. They stood and shouted for the actors, but also in recognition of the history being made that night in at the August Wilson Theatre, where “Pass Over” has become the first show to return after more than a year of COVID-related closures.
“As soon as the curtain went up people were going crazy,” remembers Smallwood. “When we finished the play, there were three curtain calls. Theater is all about energy, so as an actor you feed off a response like that.”
“Pass Over” also marks an important milestone in the 37-year-old Smallwood’s career, one that initially stalled out of the gate, but has taken on propulsive force in recent years thanks to a series of electric performances in productions like “Bug” and “True West” at Steppenwolf and in a previous iteration of “Pass Over” at Lincoln Center. Not only is Smallwood making his Broadway debut, and earning rave reviews for his turn as Kitch, a sweet-tempered man who finds himself unable to leave a dilapidated street corner, he’s also set to star in Alex Thompson’s “Rounding” and will appear in the Showtime mini-series “American Rust.” In “Rounding,” the story of a medical student going through an existential crisis, Smallwood is front and center, appearing in nearly every scene. The film from Thompson, the acclaimed director of “Saint Frances,” is expected to hit the festival circuit next year.
“I spent quarantine getting my mind and body ready so whenever things started up again, I’d be ready,” says Smallwood.
The busy dance card stands in marked contrast to a few years ago when Smallwood says he couldn’t get a job at major theater companies. After graduating from the University of Minnesota and Guthrie Theater’s actor training program, Smallwood scored some roles in regional productions like a revival of Lanford Wilson’s “The Hot L Baltimore” in Chicago, but that big break failed to lead to other roles.
“I couldn’t find a job in Chicago for five years,” he says. “I auditioned for lots of stuff, but nothing happened.”
At one point, things got so bad that Smallwood considered taking a job at Subway or Target. But things changed when he was cast in 2015’s “Charm,” a drama about a transgender charm school that debuted in Chicago. That led to a series of showy turns at Steppenwolf and an invitation to join the ensemble of a theater that served as a launch pad for the likes of John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Joan Allen and Tracy Letts.
“I never got anxious or depressed,” says Smallwood. “I’ve known since I was 14 that this was the thing I was supposed to do. I always felt that something was going to give. I had sacrificed a ton to do this, and I knew nothing else was going to make me happy. There was no plan B so this had to work. And now I feel like this happened when it was meant to happen.”
“Pass Over” is also a very different kind of play from the ones that populate Broadway theaters, which tend to be devoted to the umpteenth revival of plays by Albee or Shaw or Shakespeare or musicals based on movies. Written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu in the wake of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, the show is a searing indictment of systemic racism. Using Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” as a template, the play follows two Black men in an unnamed inner city, who struggle to avoid police violence while dreaming of a better life that will come when they “pass over” to a paradise filled with simple pleasures like clean socks.
In the three years since “Pass Over” was performed at Lincoln Center, the show has become even more topical. The deaths last year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others renewed attention on police brutality and sparked global protests. The racial reckoning taking place in this country and around the world, all of it unfolding against the backdrop of a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted people of color, makes the story of “Pass Over” feel like its shining a mirror on these troubled times.
“We’re actually living this right now,” Smallwood notes.
The show is part of a wave of new productions from artists of color, joining the likes of Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s,” Keenan Scott II’s “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” Ruben-Santiago Hudson’s “Lackawanna Blues,” and Douglas Lyons’ “Chicken & Biscuits.” It also comes amid a wider discussion about how Broadway, which has historically highlighted white actors and writers and caters to an overwhelmingly white and affluent audience, can diversify both the shows it highlights and the customers it serves.
“I don’t want this season to just be a thing that Broadway did so they can pat themselves on the back,” says Smallwood. “I want it to be a watershed moment. I want Indigenous playwrights to get their shot. I want Latino writers to have plays on Broadway, Asian playwrights and other artists of color, I want their work to be produced on Broadway.”
“Pass Over” is being produced in the height of a pandemic, so Smallwood and the rest of the cast have to undergo frequent testing, wear masks, and agree to only meet people in outdoor settings. The bubble the show needs to be maintained, meaning that he can’t greet fans at the stage door after a show, depriving him of a totem of the Broadway experience. But the new world order has led to some positive developments. The cast of “Pass Over” receive a stipend that allows them to get physical therapy and to talk to a mental health professional.
“I hope this becomes standard for all shows,” says Smallwood. “When we did this play three years ago, we didn’t even have understudies and it was grueling to deal with this kind of subject matter. This time they’ve set aside money so we can handle this in a healthy way. There’s a lot to sift through. Every time we go on stage and perform this particular play about this particular subject matter at this particular time it costs us something.”