As they stand on a street corner in Antoinette Nwandu’s intense and engrossing “Pass Over,’’ two young black men named Moses and Kitch periodically enact an anything-but-playful game.
“Kill me now!’’ Moses (Kadahj Bennett) will suddenly blurt out, whereupon his friend Kitch (Hubens “Bobby’’ Cius) points a finger-gun at him and exclaims: “Bang-bang!’’
That ritual, in a coproduction of “Pass Over’’ by SpeakEasy Stage Company and The Front Porch Arts Collective, is more than a way for Moses and Kitch to combat boredom and pass the time during what seems like — and is meant to seem like — an eternity on that street corner.
With its bitterly self-aware gallows humor, their game registers as a bleak, fatalistic pantomime of what they fear will be their fates. There’s considerable justification for that fear, considering that death by gunfire — often by the “po-po,’’ or police, for whom Moses and Kitch keep out a watchful eye — has been the fate of many of their friends, not to mention the violence suffered by innumerable African-Americans over the centuries at the hands of whites that forms the backdrop of “Pass Over.’’
Nwandu’s approach in her sharply focused yet sweeping “Pass Over’’ is to enfold both that history and today’s concerns about police brutality, gun violence, and systemic racism within a mash-up of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot’’ and the escape-from-oppression story of Exodus. For all of the play’s allegorical resonance, however, the impact of “Pass Over’’ derives from the vivid specificity of Moses and Kitch. In their personalities and their aspirations, they are anything but abstractions.
Bennett and Cius help to ensure that. As Moses, determined to “rise up to my full potential, be all I could be,’’ Bennett delivers another in a growing list of stellar performances that includes his standout turn in Company One Theatre’s "Hype Man: a break beat play.'' Attired in a Red Sox cap and a Celtics jacket, Bennett is a magnetic presence even, or especially, during Moses’s frequent periods of contemplative stillness, wordlessly radiating a sense of unshakable resolution.
By contrast, Cius’s Kitch is a figure in jittery, near-constant motion, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, a guy with not enough outlets for all his energy, bursting with dreams of his own but seeming not quite sure he’s being taken seriously by Moses.
Incisively directed at the Roberts Studio Theatre by Monica White Ndounou, "Pass Over'' unfolds in the present day in an unnamed city, but in a program note the playwright makes clear that we are also to consider the setting as encompassing ancient Egypt and the America of the mid-19th century, when slavery was the dominant fact of life for black people.
Even on their small patch of turf, Moses and Kitch cannot ever feel fully at ease: They are sometimes jolted by sudden lighting shifts (the design is by Kathy A. Perkins) and loud, ominous thumps (sound design is by Anna Drummond). Like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, Moses and Kitch are locked in an endless, repetitive cycle within a confined space. As they banter and bicker, often using “the n-word’’ as a mode of address, their talk turns to their shared desire to “get up off this block’’ and “pass over’’ to the “promised land.’’ But whenever either of them reaches the border of the Roberts Studio Theatre stage (reconfigured so that the audience is grouped on four sides of the actors), they halt, as if walled in by an invisible force.
That force, systemic racism, is given palpable form by the appearance of two white characters, both crisply embodied by Lewis D. Wheeler. The first is an oddly chipper, hat-wearing fellow who arrives toting a picnic basket, his motives for engaging Moses and Kitch mysterious, his conversation punctuated with effusions like “Gosh golly gee!’ The second is a racist police officer who makes it his business to bully, humiliate, and generally dehumanize Moses and Kitch. Both white characters are drawn in broad strokes, clearly envisioned by the playwright as representations of undiluted malevolence through the ages.
Similar issues animated Aleshea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,’’ one of last year’s most compelling productions in Boston. The handiwork of Movement Theatre Company, presented in November by the American Repertory Theater, “What to Send Up’’ also took a no-holds-barred approach to dramatizing the legacy and present-day reality of racism, paying particular attention to the climate of mistrust engendered by police brutality in black communities.
Both Harris and Nwandu are doing the work that dramatists can do, giving eloquent voice to urgent concerns about racial justice that are playing out daily in the world beyond the theater walls. The question, as always, is whether those voices are being heard.
Play by Antoinette Nwandu
Directed by Monica White Ndounou
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Feb. 2. Tickets start at $25. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com