Jordan Roth stood on the side of West 52nd street in New York City, fighting to hold back tears — of joy, relief, pride, exhaustion — in front of the August Wilson theater, where Wednesday evening “Pass Over” became the first play to give a performance on Broadway in 16 months.
He watched as the play’s audience bounded on to the street, where a block party was meant to transfigure the complicated and bittersweet emotions of returning to theater into some clarity of joy. Silent for a while, trying to summon even a few words, the four-time Tony-winning producer and president of Jujamcyn Theaters — nearly seven feet tall in heels — was totally dwarfed, humbled like everyone else by the messy alchemy of emotions wrought by the evening and unsure how to interpret the unfolding scene.
“Isn’t this everything we thought it would be?” he said finally, exhaling. “And everything we never thought it could be? This is what was just imagined, that we would be in community and pour ourselves out onto the street. This is what has come out of Antoinette’s art.”
Written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu and starring Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood and Gabriel Ebert, “Pass Over” is not the first show to return to Broadway since the industry shuttered in March 2020. “Springsteen on Broadway,” a revival of Bruce Springsteen’s concert-style show, began performances in June. But “Pass Over” is the first play — and the first of seven plays written by Black authors — to return Broadway to traditional theater, a goalpost for the industry’s long road back to normalcy.
An adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” “Pass Over” reveals two Black men trapped under a street lamp, dreaming of what paradise could look like and reminded constantly of the violent forces that detain them. It’s a play where the men literally wish for a plague, a last resort to rebalance the abounding inequities of race, class and power.
On the street outside the August Wilson — its marquee lit with the words “Sun comin up we free” — Nwandu, who’d entered the theater early in the evening to a standing ovation — emerged from the center balcony to look down on the crowd and address her audience.
“I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude and joy for this night, for this moment, for all of us, and for our city,” she said. “Do you know how crazy it is to write a play about a plague and then live through a plague? Now we’re here together to tell this story of Black joy.”
Of course, her audience had gathered together, masked and vaccinated, as mandated by the Broadway League for audiences until at least October. And, to cheers below, Nwandu thanked the crowd for its compliance.
“I’ve never loved this country so much as when I am in the theater,” she finished, “because the theater is a microcosm of what the United States could be. We’re all a little bit damaged, a little bit weird, and we stand next to each other to make something beautiful.”
In truth, “Pass Over” — devastating and aspirational — had materialized two co-existent realities of Broadway’s return on Wednesday: A celebration that the industry, aided by vaccination requirements and a year’s long negotiation between the industry’s unions and trade associations, could emerge after the pandemic. And, on its return, a charge to entirely transform its industry, having ousted producer Scott Rudin and been forced to contend with the structures of systemic inequality and racism that buttress its organization.
“But that’s the play,” Roth said. “This is about the best of what’s possible in theater. Hold in your hands what is and could be at the same time and make it into art.”