The World Expects Black Men to Make Themselves Smaller. My Brother Never Did.
At the end of Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Broadway play, “Pass Over,” I was in tears. One of the two main characters in the play, Kitch, is faced with the choice of a purgatorial existence with something material he covets, or an eternity in paradise, free from worldly suffering. What moved me was knowing how the decision Kitch needs to make is both easy and impossible.
I am not much of a crier in my actual life. When I’m on the verge of tears, I try to hold them back. My misguided stoicism is something I hold as a ridiculous, slightly self-destructive point of pride. But when I’m reading a beautiful book or I watch a poignant moment in a movie or television show or even a commercial, something tightly held will break loose inside me, and tears will stream down my face. I am grateful for brilliant art that moves me beyond the emotional walls I build around myself.
“Pass Over” is the story of Moses and Kitch, two young Black men who have little more than one another. In Danya Taymor’s production at the August Wilson Theater, the set is spare. There is a streetlamp, a milk crate, an abandoned tire, a steel drum. The two men, played by Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood, try to provide each other with the emotional sustenance they are denied anywhere else. They banter energetically. They fantasize about a better world, in which they are not trapped, without hope, in a stark urban setting. They try to believe they can pass over to a better place.
My brother Joel Gay died two months and 11 days ago. I have missed him every day since his passing over to wherever he is now. I am in shock. I am heartbroken. I do not know how to live in this world without him. I cry when I can, but I have yet to allow myself to surrender to my sorrow. I’m scared to do so because if I start to truly cry, I don’t know if I will be able to stop.
Joel and I were born only three years apart. He was my younger brother, and then the middle child when our baby brother, Michael Jr., came along. We were very close, a team. We begged our parents to name Michael Jr. Ben. Ben Gay. Get it?
For my whole life, Joel was a magnetic force who drew everyone toward him. When he was born, the nurses in the hospital were so enamored with him that they threatened to steal him. As he was growing up, my mother worried with some regularity that someone would snatch him in a grocery store or at the zoo.
He was charming and adorable and then he was handsome — and always, he knew it. He smiled with his whole face. He laughed with his whole chest. He loved with his whole heart.
When my brother died, at 43 years old, he had already lived several full lives. He had played professional soccer in Europe. He had raised his son, who is now 26, as a single father. He had a brief stint as a conscious rapper and helped organize a boycott against Taco Bell, demanding more money per bushel for the farm workers who picked tomatoes. He had run his own lawn care company.
He entered corporate America, got an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago, rose through the ranks, and became one of the youngest Black chief executives of a public company. When he died, he was the chief executive of an alternative energy company he was about to take public.
He was wildly ambitious and competitive. He loved to cook and could have been a chef. He loved cars. He loved his family, passionately. He was loud and gregarious and arrogant and generous. He was annoying and stubborn. We argued, a lot, and still he was my biggest fan. He was my mom’s best friend, my dad’s best friend. He was our brother’s best friend. At his funeral, we met a dozen people who introduced themselves as Joel’s best friend. He was my best friend.
The world was a larger, better place with Joel in it, but even he could not escape the realities with which all Black men must contend — the realities that limited possibilities for Moses and Kitch in “Pass Over.”Whenever Joel moved to a new city, he introduced himself and his son to the local police. “This is my child; take a good look at him,” he would say, trying to ensure that the officers would see my nephew, this young Black man, as a human being rather than a target. He told them the makes and models of the cars that he and his son drove.
It is not likely that these gestures could prevent the tragedies he feared most — tragedies that happen daily in America, even if they don’t make headlines — but I think my brother needed to feel a semblance of control in a world where so much was beyond his control.
He never made himself smaller in the ways the world expected him to. But he needed to believe that he and his child were not trapped in an impossible place.
There is no intermission in “Pass Over,” which means there is no respite from the relentless, sometimes frenetic dialogue, the actors bounding back and forth across the stage, saying “nigga” in a hundred different ways to express a hundred different emotions. It is fitting that we, the audience, are held in place for 95 minutes, much in the way that Moses and Kitch are held in their own unforgiving place.
Every so often, the characters freeze, trembling in fear, and we know why, all too well. They are being confronted by the fragility of their Black lives and the existential terror that is always hounding them.
“Pass Over” is absurdist, but so are the conditions of this world — the conditions my brother Joel faced, the conditions far too many of us face. In the days since I saw “Pass Over,” I have been thinking about the play’s power, how it reached inside me and opened up a well of grief that continues to deepen. The show reminded me that even when I feel there is nothing more any of us can say about our collective grief for the fragility of Black life, there can be a way forward. We can also celebrate our strength and grace and uncanny wisdom.
I’ve been thinking about the final minutes of the play, the painful, delicate moment of watching one man pass over into a beautiful and bountiful place while one man lingers, uncertain, between this world and the next.
I am thinking too about my brother, as a Black man, as our family’s bright shining star. Every day I pray that he too, is in a beautiful and bountiful place.
Roxane Gay, a contributing Opinion writer, is the editor of “The Selected Works of Audre Lorde” and the author of the memoir “Hunger.”
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