‘Head of Passes’ At The Mark Taper Forum: A Theatre Review By Keri Tombazian

By Keri Tombazian

At the intersection of faith and suffering lives Job of the Bible.  There too, resides playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Shelah (Phylicia Rashad), the faithful matriarch of a fractured family living in the family home situated where the waters of Mississippi River diverge, an area known as the Head of Passes.  Like the rushing waters of the river, the story unfolds with such force that the opening night audience nearly leapt to its feet in a standing ovation at the end of Act I.  As the house lights rose for intermission, an otherwise reserved gentleman seated next to me caught the grief on my face and patted my knee as if to say, “it’ll be alright.”  McCraney’s play is the kind of material that unifies an audience into a collective experience – like a rollercoaster, taking the sharp turns and whooshing swoops in collective fear and joy, with the exquisite hand of Director Tina Landau on the controls.

Enough cannot be said in this brief space about McCraney’s masterpiece of word and too much should not be revealed lest the surprises of the story be spoiled. The Book of Jeremiah says that God knows a person before they are formed in the womb.  Tarell Alvin McCraney’s characters in Head of Passes are so well drawn, so specific, so true, it seems he also knew every hair, every whisper, every cry of each of the eight humans who live in his story even before he wrote them into being.  Diving headfirst into the eternal human struggle of reconciling faith with circumstance, McCraney’s deft hand paints with brushes of symbolism, realism, and imagination.  [A word of caution: avoid reading too many details or lengthy summaries of the plot before seeing the play. Let it unfold before you in real time at the theatre and leave you breathless.]

Picture two large hands in the posture of prayer.  Consider one hand a strong gale-wind of faith, the other a torrent of tribulation; picture these hands pressing against each other.  Now picture a woman straining in the middle of them, her own hands pushing outward struggling to keep from being crushed by their furious might.  Phylicia Rashad inhabits that space, that struggle, that throw-down with God, and imbues Shelah with echoes of August Wilson’s “Rose” (Fences), of Shakespeare’s “Lear” (King Lear), and of the Bible’s Job.  Since opening night, tweets and insta’s have flooded social media with cyber sighs of, “Phylicia Rashad gives the performance of a lifetime”, “…laying bare every aspect of the human heart”, “…a tour de force”, and “…there are no words to describe her.”   See her in Passes, and her portrayal of Shelah will replace sweet Clair Huxtable of the Cosby Show as the first association to her work. .

Alongside Rashad is a flawless ensemble of artists, including Jacqueline Williams who originated the role of Mae at Steppenwolf.  A grounded Williams wraps her arms around both the comedy and tragedy of the circumstances and delivers each with fidelity.  Francois Battiste is spot on, true and dear as the good son, Aubrey.   Like an interloper, Shelah’s wayward daughter, Cookie (Alana Arenas) wreaks havoc upon her mother.  Whatever resource she tapped­­–be it actor knowledge or life experience, Arenas nails the addict’s core, right down to spewing the poison alloy of shame and blame.  Kyle Beltran (Crier) is heartbreaking, multifaceted, and unfeigned.  J. Bernard Calloway’s laudable economy of acting as Spencer wastes not a breath, nor a movement.  Obie, Ovation, and NAACP Award winner John Earl Jelks (Creaker) lives up to his auspicious resume, never taking a left turn in what might be a caricature performance in a lesser man’s hands.

Rounding out the cast is actor James Carpenter.  If the character of Shelah sprang from Job of the Old Testament, the character of Dr. Anderson sprang from the biblical idea of the Holy Ghost.  His very nature is to press, always press toward comfort and thus, whether intentional or not, turns out to be a nod to the Holy Spirit.  Like leaven to bread dough, actor James Carpenter’s natural ease and comeliness raises the mere doctor to a symbol of healing.  If only Shelah would avail herself of that which he freely gives.

There will be no spoilers here, but applause must be given to G.W. Mercier’s mind-blowing set.  Walking to the lobby after curtain, more than one person uttered, “That set was itself a character,” and indeed, the set undergoes as much of a character-arc as any other player of the night.  Bravo.

Head of Passes began its life in 2013, when Steppenwolf Theatre commissioned McCraney, working with his oft-artistic partner, Landau, to write a play from the themes of Book of Job.  It was further developed off Broadway in 2016 at the Public Theatre where The New York Times recognized it as a brilliant, but still “uneven” play.  Four years since its inception with all kinks worked out, Head of Passes has found its home at the Taper.  Los Angeles audiences are quirky; it is no secret that we think playwrights prefer us over our bigger celebrity sister, New York.  With neither the lure, nor bragging rights of Broadway, we are here for the play.
Take a leap of faith and be there for Head of Passes, playing now through October 22nd.  Get your tickets HERE.

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