Danya Taymor

Coat by Alexander McQueen

Live from New York: Danya Taymor

At each performance last fall during the two-month run of Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's Pass Over, the first play presented on Broadway since March 2020, the packed house responded to the live welcome announcement with resounding cheers. "We talked a lot about this play being, for many people, the first play that they would see back or their first experience in a group again," recalls the director Danya Taymor, who collaborated with Nwandu since Pass Over first premiered in Chicago in 2017. "We thought a lot about, how do we usher people in and acknowledge the moment and that this isn't normal and we are still in the middle of a pandemic?"

In many ways, Pass Over, which traces the intimacies and agonies of two Black men living with the ever-present threat of police violence, was the ideal play to lead Broadway's return. With only three actors, the production was able to test out Covid-19 protocols that became widespread and have now mostly been abandoned as the live performance industry has entered a new detente with the virus. After a year of reckoning with racial injustice, Nwandu's work, which is lyrical and boisterous with allusions to Beckett and the Bible, helped set the tone for a season featuring more artists of color than ever before. And with the playwright's revisions, the murder of one of the main characters has been replaced with a more cathartic ending. "When Antoinette first said, 'I can't do that version,' I could understand what it means to show that kind of violence on a Black body in this moment and really think about what we as a country need so we can imagine a different thing," explains Taymor. "Antoniette has often said, 'I don't feel more hopeful about the world after 2020, but as an artist, I need to envision the world that could be.'"

There are hints of that possible world across the theater scene now, with executives and creatives alike working to counteract the industry’s longstanding inequities. The proof though, says Taymor, is in what comes after. "I'm really curious to see what's going to be programmed next season," she emphasizes. "I think Pass Over is a sign that it can change and then we will have to, as a collective, the theater community, continue to hold the gatekeepers' feet to the fire and say, 'No, there's no going back, there's only going forward.' I think Pass Over just kicks that door open and hopefully these other plays that are coming can now walk through a little easier." So far, this Broadway season has seen revivals of The Piano Lesson and Topdog/Underdog, two plays explicitly about the African-American experience, and its first production of the landmark Death of a Salesman cast with a Black family.

More than anything else, however, Pass Over offered a moment of communal hope for an industry that continues to be battered even two years into the pandemic. "What is theater good at? It’s really good at healing," says Taymor, who is now directing an Off Broadway production of Pulitzer Prize finalist Will Arbery's Evanston Salt Costs Climbing opening next week. "It's a place where you actually are in community, not only with the people sitting next to you, but with the people telling you the story. You're all sharing space, you're literally breathing the same air. And after a year where air was suddenly lethal, I think that really changed how we thought about the play."

Evanston Salt Costs Climbing is currently in previews and opens November 14 at the New Group, New York. Read this story and many more in print by ordering our third issue here. See the full Live in New York series here.

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As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.