When Antoinette Nwandu saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the 2013 Broadway production of “Waiting for Godot,” she was struck by how Samuel Beckett’s two tramps were able to grow old.
“They may not have had access to material goods, but they were fortunate because the world left them alone,” Nwandu says. “That is not the case for young black men.”
In “Pass Over,” presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective Jan. 3-25 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Nwandu resets Beckett’s tale of two men waiting for a promise to be fulfilled to a street corner in a nameless city in the middle of the night. The two are Moses and Kitch, young black men at that pivotal moment between boyhood and manhood.
“Life is just beginning for them,” says Nwandu. “They have so much potential.”
Moses and Kitch play a game, naming a Promised Land Top 10 — the things they would like to have if and when they “pass over” into paradise — but their back and forth, rattling off the simplest wishes (clean socks), is undercut by a growing sense of foreboding.
“The pace of the play is rooted in how young these men are,” Nwandu says. “They are quick and funny. They make macabre jokes, but their conversation is natural even if there’s always a note of anxiety.”
And even though they seemed trapped in this moment, Nwandu says they are not helpless.
“I think the idea that they are helpless depends on your perspective,” says Nwandu, a Harvard graduate. “They are on the brink of something, and the idea of going off somewhere or coming home is a big deal.”
Nwandu, who was hired by Spike Lee to write for his “She’s Gotta Have It” TV series — after he filmed “Pass Over” onstage — is currently working on the Amazon film adaptation of Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s “Wash Clean the Bones.” Productions of “Pass Over” have been staged at Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago and New York’s Lincoln Center. In her play, she layers Beckett’s structure with the biblical story of Passover.
“I grew up in the church,” Nwandu says, and the story of justice served and movement toward the promised land resonates. “Theater offers the opportunity to tell stories through an epic lens. We can find our superheroes in the bodies of the marginalized.”
SpeakEasy Stage and Front Porch are offering an array of talkbacks and community programs around “Pass Over,” including a panel discussion on “Restorative Justice and Healing After Loss,” Jan. 7 at Hibernian Hall and a post-show discussion led by Nwandu on Jan. 23 in the Roberts Studio Theatre after the 7:30 p.m. performance.
“Pass Over” is just one of several plays opening in the new year in Boston that feature fresh topics and perspectives. Lyric Stage Company is presenting “The Cake,” by Bekah Brunstetter (Jan. 10-Feb. 9), a comic-drama centering on a baker’s refusal to make a cake for a lesbian couple’s wedding.
The point of “The Cake” is not to parse the legal judgment that, according to the Supreme Court, sometimes allows businesses to refuse customers based on an owner’s beliefs, but to look at what contributes to those beliefs. Brunstetter, who is also a writer for TV’s “This is Us,” builds characters who are full of contradictions, and she complicates the issue by adding the baker’s eagerness to compete in a TV show called “The Big American Bake-Off.”
In addition to “The Cake,” Actors’ Shakespeare Project is presenting “Bright Half Life,” by Tanya Barfield (Jan. 22-Feb. 16), a time-traveling chronicle of a lesbian couple’s relationship from first date to divorce with all the joy and pain that makes a relationship possible. And the Huntington Theatre Company stages “Sweat” (Jan. 31-Feb. 23), Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of the underbelly of the American dream deferred, set in a cozy neighborhood bar where tensions are exposed among workers and neighbors in a dying factory town.
In the backlash to the Obama era, says Nwandu, social media has emerged as a powerful voice for the marginalized, pushing the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the trans rights movements all to the forefront of conversations.
“We’re all trying to out-‘woke’ each other,” says Nwandu.
“My voice, and others, are being solicited now because the white establishment is behind the curve,” she says. “It’s a response to the threat that what has been the longtime center of attention will no longer be the focus of the audience’s gaze.”
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective. At the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Jan. 3-25. Tickets $25-$70, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com