Why Black Art Is Universal With Antoinette Nwandu | Crooked Media
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August 26, 2021
Why Black Art Is Universal With Antoinette Nwandu

In This Episode

On this bonus episode of Takeline, Renee talks with award winning playwright Antoinette Nwandu about her play Pass Over, which is  the first show to return to Broadway after the New York theater shutdown. Antoinette reveals what inspired the play, why she chose to change the ending for its new Broadway run, and why the themes in Pass Over transcend the American black experience.


For tickets to Pass Over please visit https://www.broadway.com/shows/pass-over/


Or you can watch a filmed version of Pass Over, directed by Spike Lee on Amazon Prime Video  





Renee Montgomery: What’s up Takeliners? Welcome to a first-time bonus episode of Takeline, with your girl, me, Renee. On this episode, I spoke with the very talented award-winning playwright and producer Antoinette Nwandu. Now, she is the author of the groundbreaking and masterful play, Pass Over, which is about two young Black men dreaming of a better tomorrow in a world of police violence. And it’s playing at the August Wilson Theater right now! It’s the first play to begin performances on Broadway since the theaters shut down, so go get your tickets. I’m talking about go right now and get your tickets! And please enjoy my conversation with Antoinette. Take a listen.


Renee Montgomery: So, Antoinette, I found out about Pass Over because of Matt Ross, who is the lead producer of the Pass Over, and he also has Matt Ross PR, who does the PR for it. I love the show, OK? I love everything about it. But for our listeners that don’t know, what about this play inspired you? What inspired the play? Tell us about it.


Antoinette Nwandu: Absolutely. So Pass Over is a play that was first presented to the public, the world premiere of the play was in 2017 at a theater called Steppenwolf in Chicago. And since then, the journey of this play has been something that I can only describe as spirit first. Because after 2017, Spike Lee called me.


Renee Montgomery: What!?


Antoinette Nwandu: How many people does Spike Lee? I mean, he called me! Uncle Spike called me and said I would like to film this play for Amazon Prime.


Renee Montgomery: Wow.


Antoinette Nwandu: Now, during the pandemic theater really could only go forward on screens because we could not come together. But when Spike Lee called me in 2017, filming theater for the public was something that nobody was really thinking about.


Renee Montgomery: Right.


Antoinette Nwandu: So Uncle Spike was really a bit prophetic in that because one theater did shut down, everybody was like, wait a minute, Spike Lee filmed Pass Over a year and a half ago, two years ago, let’s do that. So then it was Uncle Spike. And then as a New York playwright, I finally got to present my own play in New York at Lincoln Center in 2018. Then everybody knows what happened in 2020, then in 2021, here comes our boy, Matt Ross. He is already a Broadway theater producer. He had produced a show called “What the Constitution Means to Me” by a woman named Heidi Schreck. That play is about women’s issues. It’s about basically, I think, the relationship between women in the Constitution and why is, this why is this document deciding why I haven’t, whether I can have an abortion or not. So I knew that he was somebody who could handle what this play is about.


Renee Montgomery: Right.


Antoinette Nwandu: You know what I mean? You have to you have to trust the people you work with.


Renee Montgomery: No, absolutely. And I love this Uncle Spike thing. Like, I love that because you’re right, in 2017, you know, Spike Lee is always had a vision and done things differently. But we know now Hamilton went to Disney+ but that was way after 2017, so you’re talking about, so that was seeing in the future a little.


Antoinette Nwandu: We filmed it in, think it was January or February of 2018 and everybody was like how is this going to work.


Renee Montgomery: Wow.


Antoinette Nwandu: And you know how it works? Go on Amazon Prime and watch it. It works!


Renee Montgomery: I works. And so listen, it does work. And you said that this play came from the first, it came from a different idea. But you kind of, there’s an evolution, and I don’t want to be the spoiler. I don’t want to spoil it. But can you just talk about why, like what was going on at the time right now of why you wanted to tell this story and why you wanted to evolve it a little bit?


Antoinette Nwandu: Yes. Thank you. So, yeah, with that, with that 2017 version, with the Amazon Prime version, with the version that we did at Lincoln Center off Broadway in 2018, I will spoil that ending. That version of my play ended unfortunately—trigger warning—with the lynching of the main character, the main Black character. His name is Moses. And at the time I was so, Renee, I was so angry. I was angry at who was president. I was angry at who was a hashtag. And I was like, if I’ma do theater and we know who goes to the theater, we know who can afford those tickets, OK, well, you’re going to see this story.


Renee Montgomery: Wow.


Antoinette Nwandu: And then, like I said, this is a I’m a spirit first writer. Yes, it’s my career, but I have to go spirit first. So when we have this pandemic, and we have people who need hope. I need hope. So the version of the play right now, [laughs] we are overcoming and Moses does not die. And I would love everybody to come to the August Wilson Theater to see how I figured that out, how we as a team figured that out. A play where the character dies is a tragedy, a play where the Black character lives at the end, I’ma call that an Afro futurist journey.


Renee Montgomery: Beautiful.


Antoinette Nwandu: It’s beautiful.


Renee Montgomery: I love that. How you talk about your, you write from the spirit. You know, you’re a spiritual writer.


Antoinette Nwandu: That’s all I can do.


Renee Montgomery: And you talked about the pandemic and how we needed hope so that’s why you wrote those revisions. But speaking on the pandemic as a playwright, you know, it shut down New York theater, like, it shut down everything. Like how did that affect you? Like, how did that hit you?


Antoinette Nwandu: Honestly, you know what it did, it forced me to ground down in what is really important. Because at that point, listen to this, the only success that I have had as someone who writes for film, TV and theater, the only way people knew my name was in theater. And on March 12th, 2020, which was, yes, one week after my 40th birthday.


Renee Montgomery: OK!


Antoinette Nwandu: So I’m already, I’m at a point where I was like, oh, 2020, I’m turning 40, I’m about to take the world by storm. And the world said, uh, we are shutting down your industry.


Renee Montgomery: That’s crazy, though.


Antoinette Nwandu: Your industry. So I was like, OK, I can’t tell stories in the theater right now, but I’m still a storyteller. And you know who called me?


Renee Montgomery: Who?


Antoinette Nwandu: Netflix, and they were like, hey, we had already hired you for She’s Gotta Have It, because Spike Lee told them to in 2018. OK, let’s hire you for another show now. So I was actually, as far as my career goes, I was still moving forward during the pandemic, I was in a Zoom writing for a TV show and making TV money.


Renee Montgomery: Come on now, OK!


Antoinette Nwandu: And Netflix called me.


Renee Montgomery: Wow. Because Uncle Spike—


Antoinette Nwandu: I mean, they call my agent.


Renee Montgomery: No, but Uncle Spike, let them know that you are a talented writer. You need to be in those rooms. He spoke it for you. And in 2020 you were turning 40, which to me those numbers sound right. I like how that worked out. And so come on now.


Antoinette Nwandu: Listen. Thank you. When Netflix knows that Uncle Spike gave you your first job, then Netflix is OK to give you your second job. You know what I mean? They’re like, oh yes, she’s vetted. My gatekeeper was Spike Lee. I don’t know about you all, but you know what I mean.


Renee Montgomery: Wow! Like, that’s a flex. Your gatekeeper was Spike Lee. And talk about positivity. That’s positivity. What was the emotional reaction? Now, you went through the pandemic. You glowed up during the pandemic. And now you see theaters are opening up. People are actually coming into, I mean, I saw the line. The line was wrapped around the building. If y’all haven’t seen, the line is wrapped around the building! Because people want to get back out. People want to see the arts. People understand that that’s what we’ve been missing. So what is that feeling like now? Like what are your emotions now having gone out the house?


Antoinette Nwandu: You know what? It’s so many different things. Yes, 100% people are coming back. But I’ll tell you this, even in the before times, people who are in the theater community are already some of the best people. So I already knew that the theater community was going to have our back. What I’m feeling now, because, we have this program about Access Code, so we are giving $40 to young people. When I stand outside Renee and I’m meeting people who are Black, LatinX, LGBTQIA, trans—first time on in a Broadway theater of any kind! Young people who were born and raised in New York, did you know that Broadway is for you? It’s for you! Young king from Queens, from Bronx, from Brooklyn, from Harlem, Washington Heights—come on now.


Renee Montgomery: You preaching.


Antoinette Nwandu: Listen, somebody need to! [laughs]


Renee Montgomery: Listen, so you talked about it, you said Black, LatinX, LGBTQ, like my fiancé is a queen from Queens. You met her, you know what I mean?


Antoinette Nwandu: I met her! I was down with you all. I’m kind of like look, y’all the people—come on now.


Renee Montgomery: We’re here.


Antoinette Nwandu: We’re here!


Renee Montgomery: We’re here. And you talked about it. Spike Lee got your start. Now Matt hits me up. I’m all the way down when I hear you’re a part of the project, I hear what’s going on. What is it like, when we talk about the arts, we talk about school—why are the arts important? You know, like just  from somebody inside the arts, because we know we hear the people “keep arts in school” we hear the saying, but can you just elaborate on why that really is important?


Antoinette Nwandu: Absolutely. I’ll tell you. And you know what, I’m going to speak specifically to theater right now, because that is where I thrive. Theater is important because in order to make a play, you need to collaborate with people that you don’t know, you might not like. You know what I mean? I’ll tell you this, and I’ll tell you this, as I know, you’re Renee Montgomery, Atlanta Dream WNBA whoopty whoop. I played basketball, I was point guard.


Renee Montgomery: OK, come on, PG!


Antoinette Nwandu: From 7th grade until 10th grade. And then after 10th grade, I coached the middle school team, 11th grade and 12th grade. I will tell you this: basketball and theater, the two activities in my life where it’s like, look, we got a game tonight, we got to show tonight, y’all need to show up, be a team, know your job and get to work. That’s it.


Renee Montgomery: I love that.


Antoinette Nwandu: Even if you don’t, you know, OK, maybe you want to be an actor in real life, whatever, but I’m talking to the young people now. You need art because it shows you who you are. It shows you how to deal with difficult emotions. It shows you how to rise above—art is just beautiful. Who doesn’t want to just look at something beautiful?


Renee Montgomery: I do. I’ll tell you right now, I’m so into the arts. I’m that hybrid like, you, you know, I love the arts and I also love sports. So I’m curious, then, what’s been the most rewarding response to the play that you received? Like what to you stuck out the most about like, this play and it coming to life?


Antoinette Nwandu: It’s on social media every single night. Another time, somebody does a selfie with the program or themselves saying: my first time on Broadway! Or even just: my first time back.


Renee Montgomery: I love that.


Antoinette Nwandu: It’s just, it’s the people, it’s the people, you know what I mean? At the end of the day, yes, career, whoopty whoop. Yes, money, whoopty whoop. Yes, this that. Ooh, the press, whoopty whoop. But if I’m not putting something out that’s live theater, especially at this moment where it’s like you have to show your vaccine card, you have to mask up. OK, well, if you have to do all that and the show’s not even good, you might was well stay home.


Renee Montgomery: Yeah! You better put on a show if you gotta do all that!


Antoinette Nwandu: Listen, if you got to do that to come, this show better be live and direct.


Renee Montgomery: I love that.


Antoinette Nwandu: And it better be about something. You know what I mean?


Renee Montgomery: I know what you mean. Antoinette, are we making a movie out of the Pass Over? I mean, I’m sorry, I got, I just, I just got ask!! Because I’m, I’m just, I’m all the way in it. OK, Antoinette, what are we doing? What are we doing! We got something here!


Antoinette Nwandu: You know, I’m having a real real real real real real real row, honest with you. The legal side of it, because we already have what’s basically a documentary capture. Which I love and which I’ve gotten responses back in my DMs from Nigeria, Brazil, people watch. You say Spike Lee, people gonna watch. So for me artistically, because it already exists on screen in some form, I’m OK to let that alone. But I will tell you if you want a film, a fictional film written by Antoinette Nwandu, OK, well, then follow along, because I’m working on two right now. And I can’t tell who the two people are, I can’t tell you who they are, but if I said their name, you would know.


Renee Montgomery: Listen, don’t drop the mic all over the place on us like that, Antoinette!


Antoinette Nwandu: I’m working on two films right now.


Renee Montgomery: Yes! I love, so you’re, I always like to ask people, people have asked me this and I don’t know my answer. So I’m going to ask you, since you’re in this world, if you had—and I know, I’m a producer, so I’m not in the play just so people, the listeners might understand—but if somebody had to play me in a movie, who would do that? I don’t know my answer to it. And since you’re in that world, who would you have play me? [laugh] I love how you really stopped to think. Who would you have played me in a movie? Because I’ve been asked this question and this could actually be a real thing.


Antoinette Nwandu: I did. Right. You know what I’m literally going on IMDB because, hold on one second, because I think I know who I would—but OK, but let me ask you this, does the movie, is it you now or is it you at the beginning of your career?


Renee Montgomery: It’s me now. Let’s say the now me. So it’s not necessarily, it’s somebody that could transform from basketball me to now.


Antoinette Nwandu: Right, right. Right, right, right, right.


Renee Montgomery: Yeah. That’s a that’s a hard question to ask on the spot.


Antoinette Nwandu: That is a hard question.


Renee Montgomery: You can text me the answer because I really want to know it, because I need to know that ID. So I wanted to get an expert—


Antoinette Nwandu: Yes, I have a few people who could play you. I knew instantly who could play you in the flashback.


Renee Montgomery: Who’s that? Who would be the flashback me?


Antoinette Nwandu: Let me tell you. Storm Reid. Read? Reede?


Renee Montgomery: She was on Dear White People, is that?


Antoinette Nwandu: The one that was in Wrinkle in Time as she just turned like 18 or 19. She just had a birthday on Instagram a little while ago.


Renee Montgomery: OK, so that’s baby me. I like that. OK.


Antoinette Nwandu: That’s baby you. I had baby you right away because she’s tough.


Renee Montgomery: Yeah.


Antoinette Nwandu: But she can do soft.


Renee Montgomery: Ok.


Antoinette Nwandu: But for you now . . . OK that will be, you know it might be, it might be, I don’t know, it might be finding that new person. I don’t know.


Renee Montgomery: Oooh, I like that.


Renee Montgomery: I honestly don’t know


Antoinette Nwandu: Somebody we don’t know yet. They’re waiting on their brake.


Antoinette Nwandu: Somebody who’s looking to make a name on a roll.


Renee Montgomery: We need the Antoinette of She’s Gotta Have It. Is that what, is that what you trying to tell me!?


Antoinette Nwandu: Listen, listen. I’m got to tell you. [laughs]


Renee Montgomery: So you said people from Nigeria and around the country have reached out to you about this play. What is it about the Black experience that’s so universal?


Antoinette Nwandu: I’m going to do you one better. I believe that this play tells the story through the lens of the Black experience, but it is for everyone. I’m telling you, Renee, in my Dms, young people from I don’t remember the name of the university, I think it was Ibadan University in Nigeria saying: this is us.


Renee Montgomery: Wow.


Antoinette Nwandu: And they’re all Black. So some of, they’re sayings, some of them are the Mister’s and some of them are like Moses and Kitsch. Because ain’t no white people in [unclear]. So I’m like, OK, that’s deep. Now, 2017, when I, when we did this play at Steppenwolf and older gentleman who saw the title of the play, he was Jewish, he thought the play was about Jewish people. This man was in his 90s. He showed up to watch the play, but he was like, it took me so much effort to get here. I’m old, I might as well just stay and watch it, even though it’s not what I thought it was about.


Renee Montgomery: Right.


Antoinette Nwandu: This man called me up afterwards. He told me that he is alive today—this is back in 2017—he said he was alive because when he was a child, his family escaped the Holocaust.


Renee Montgomery: Wow.


Antoinette Nwandu: And he looked at me and he said: you told my story. He said: Moses and Kitsch, that’s me. He said the word ghetto is a Yiddish word, ghettos were created in the Holocaust because it was about we need to round these people up and put them somewhere where they don’t bother us. And that’s where Moses and Kitsch are, they’re in a place where you put them somewhere and they can’t bother us. So when I say this is a human story?


Renee Montgomery: Wow.


Antoinette Nwandu: The people who are low say we’re not going to be low no more. And who are the characters that I’m using to tell this human story? Black people.


Renee Montgomery: I love you Antoinette! Oh, my gosh, amazing.


Antoinette Nwandu: Listen. I’m, spirit first!


Renee Montgomery: So listen, she’s Antoinette. It was such a blessing, Antoinette. This is the visionary behind the play, the Pass Over. It’s on Broadway until October. Go and see it, people! Antoinette, thank you so much!


Antoinette Nwandu: Thank you Renee so much for having me. Thank you so much for having me. I love your spirit. I love the fact that we can tell the people literally, if you love women’s basketball—which first of all, you need to show up, you need to because, who, who, who has ball and who’s out here doing it?


Renee Montgomery: Thank you.


Antoinette Nwandu: But if you can sit in a live basketball game and feel that emotion, then you can come to the theater if it’s about you, and feel that emotion.


Renee Montgomery: August Wilson Theater is what theater she’s talking about just in case when says “the theater” it’s August Wilson Theater. Right there on Broadway, 245 West 52nd Street, just in case you’re taking notes. New York, New York, baby. Check it out! Antoinette, thank you so much.


Antoinette Nwandu: Thank you, Renee. Thank you.


Renee Montgomery: That’s how we do!