Passing opens in Hartford, CT on Passover, 1988. Two women, Gretchen, and her younger sister, Emma, have recently lost their mother, Ruth, who was a survivor of the Holocaust. Gretchen, who is married and has a young daughter, has long since moved away from Hartford. Emma, on the other hand, is unmarried and has spent her adult life living in the family home with their widowed mother. As is often the case in such instances, there is great love between the sisters, but considerable antagonism as well. To make matters worse, they've been unable to locate a will. Gretchen wants to sell the house. Emma wants to continue living there. This basic conflict stirs up many other long-standing tensions between them. When Gretchen leaves to run some errands, Emma discovers a sealed envelope in a box. It's addressed to Gretchen in their mother's handwriting. Emma opens the letter and reads it, leading to a long flashback to 1945 and the end of the war, during which a dark and profound family secret is revealed. The play's final scene takes place in the present day -- in the very near future. Perhaps tomorrow. In it, the choices made by Ruth in 1945 and those made by Emma in 1988 result in the gravest of repercussions.
The word itself, passing, takes on many different meanings throughout the play. One of its dictionary definitions is: "The ability of a person to be regarded as a member of an identity group or category different from their own," and has traditionally been applied to members of the African-American community who are sufficiently light-skinned to "pass" as white. Within the context of the play, that meaning is used to apply to the Jewish population in the U.S. But Passing (the play) is not as simple as it might seem on the surface. It was only after I had written the script that I began to discover the many layers of meaning hidden in its title.
First, there's the very obvious reference to the story of the Passover, when the angel of death is said to have literally passed over the Jews in Egypt during the tenth plague, an event which resulted in a holocaust of sorts for the Egyptians, but also allowed the Jews to pass out of Egypt and, ultimately, into the Promised Land. Then there's a theme of forgiveness which is woven through the play, the idea of "taking a pass" on vengeance. There's also the recurring motif of passing responsibilities from one set of hands to another; the idea of the passing of time; the way in which the consequences of events are passed down from one generation to the next. I'm still finding new significance to the title Passing, long after I completed the first draft in 2017.
As I noted in my previous blog post, Passing originally consisted of just four scenes, with a running time of about 35 minutes, hardly constituting a full-length play. But after the events in Pittsburgh in October of 2018, I was inspired to add a fifth scene. After many years of ignoring my Jewish identity, it was suddenly thrust upon me. It was messy. It was complicated. I'm still sorting through all of the repercussions. Central to all of the changes I've experienced, however, was the acute realization that I, too, have been merely passing as a white man. I have often joked that I'm only Jewish to the extent that Nazis would kill me. After Pittsburgh I realized that it was no longer a joke. I have been disillusioned. And it became important for me to help other Jews who have been passing to understand the dire peril which we all now face.