Passage Looks at Friendship and Power Struggle in a Modern Colonialist World
Christopher Chen's latest play, now running at Soho Rep., looks at the personal consequences of global power structures.
Rodgers and Hammerstein taught us that the farmer and the cowman should be friends. But what about the farmer and the speculator? Can a real friendship ever be cultivated between persons with a built-in power imbalance? Christopher Chen's new play Passage, described as a "fantasia on colonialism past and present," opens with that question and spends the subsequent 90 minutes attempting to answer it.
Chen and his director Saheem Ali ensure that, if nothing else, their audience members are on equal footing. Everyone removes their shoes before entering scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado's ascetic space, flanked by two sets of wooden bleachers, and stripped of any detail that could pinpoint time or geography. The idea (as the elegant Lizan Mitchell explains several times as our narrator of sorts) is to conduct a perfectly controlled thought experiment — one that asks us to explore an idea from neutral ground where everyone has checked their personal and political baggage at the door — along with their footwear.
Gently lifted out of reality, we're presented with the following detail-scrubbed scenario: Country Y has occupied Country X. Country X is allowed its own laws and leaders, but Country Y controls both and has been unfairly abusing its power (within the confines of Country X law) to mistreat native-born citizens. In this world, where characters are only given letters for names and Country Y people are indicated solely by crimson clothing (costumes by Toni-Leslie James), we meet Country X-ers H (Purva Bedi), B (K.K. Moggie), and M (David Ryan Smith). H resents M for going into business with Country Y-ers; M resents H for passing judgment on his ethics; and B, an esteemed doctor, is growing in her resentment for Country Y-ers in general after a series of unpleasant run-ins with them. The true test, however, comes when B meets a particularly thoughtful citizen of Country Y, F (Linda Powell lending a grounded, soothing presence), with whom B gingerly dabbles in the waters of genuine friendship.
If it all sounds a little clinical, that's occasionally how it feels. Chen does his best to draw nuance from characters that inherently sound like placeholders, but that being the case, it's not always clear whether to empathize with them as human beings, or dispassionately study their situations like a political analyst. Objectivity — while one of the play's greatest strengths — also turns out to be one of its greatest weaknesses once you realize that when you've left your emotional investments at the door… you've left your emotional investments at the door. Bias may be confounding, but neutrality can be numbing.
Ironically, Passage itself is not a play that remains perfectly neutral. The unfolding events slowly slide into the inevitable conclusion that friendship between the citizens of an occupied country and their occupiers is an explosive recipe. And perhaps that's a perfectly valid conclusion. Even so, I would prefer to come to that opinion myself, rather than having the results of this theatrical experiment spelled out from A to Z.