Theater Review: ‘Head of Passes’

Facing forces more powerful than humanity
March 28, 2016 Updated: March 29, 2016
FONT BFONT SText size

NEW YORK—Press notes point out that “Head of Passes” is “a contemporary parable inspired by the Book of Job.” As written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (winner of numerous theatrical and literary awards, including the coveted MacArthur “Genius” Grant), the work is tremendously complex.

The play title refers to the area where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. The action of the play takes place in a home near this point. The house, once respectable if not elegant, has fallen into severe disrepair. But its remnants remain, under the stewardship of the owner, Shelah (Phylicia Rashad), who refuses to leave it.

Rashad executes a tour-de-force performance.

Her servants, Creaker (John Earl Jelks) and his son Crier (Kyle Beltran), live on the premises; her grown children, sons Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway), and daughter Cookie (Alana Arenas), live elsewhere.

It’s important to note that Cookie is not Shelah’s birth child. Cookie was brought home unexpectedly as an infant by Shelah’s now deceased husband, Big Aubrey, who ordered Shelah to raise her as her own. Shelah, though having nothing good to say about Big Aubrey, rose to the occasion and loved Cookie as if she were her natural child.

HEAD OF PASSES PUBLIC THEATER/NEWMAN THEATER 425 LAFAYETTE STREET, NEW YORK  Cast: Alana Arenas, Francois Battiste, Kyle Beltran, J. Bernard Calloway, Robert Joy, John Earl Jelks, Phylicia Rashad and Arnetia Walker  Director: Tina Landau PLAYWRIGHT: TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY
Alana Arenas (L) and Phylicia Rashad play an adopted daughter and her mother in “Head of Passes.” (Joan Marcus)

The present action represents a special occasion: It is Shelah’s birthday, and she is to be honored with a surprise party. This is an event that brings family, close friend Mae (Arnetia Walker), and Shelah’s longtime doctor, Dr. Anderson (Robert Joy), to the house.

However, the doctor’s presence is partly for medical concerns, as Shelah is suffering from a serious illness—replete with a fierce cough and the spitting of blood. Dr. Anderson fears for her survival.

This evening is particularly dangerous as a powerful rainstorm has been pounding the area, and the house, with a roof that needed mending long before, is becoming strained beyond its strength. In fact, rain is leaking into the house; buckets have been placed to catch the water, and there are hints of things getting worse, much worse.

HEAD OF PASSES PUBLIC THEATER/NEWMAN THEATER 425 LAFAYETTE STREET, NEW YORK  Cast: Alana Arenas, Francois Battiste, Kyle Beltran, J. Bernard Calloway, Robert Joy, John Earl Jelks, Phylicia Rashad and Arnetia Walker  Director: Tina Landau PLAYWRIGHT: TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY
Phylicia Rashad and Kyle Beltran in “Head of Passes,” written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. (Joan Marcus)

The father/son relationship of Creaker and Crier is somewhat strained, but on a mild household level of whether or not the potato salad will keep long enough to serve to Cookie, who may or may not attend the festivities. Shelah’s sons display mild conflicts.

But Cookie, who finally arrives, appears under stress. She has left her two little boys at home in the one room they all live in. She admits she is in a bad way financially and asks Shelah for money. When Shelah invites Cookie to find her purse in the upstairs bedroom and help herself to its contents, a peculiar incident takes place, which leads to a series of events that is akin to those in the direst of tragedies, almost like a Greek tragedy in scope.

Throughout all her tribulations, Shelah repeatedly calls upon God, whom she refers to as Father. The play’s final, very long monologue gives Phylicia Rashad, alone on stage, the opportunity to display a power and breadth of emotion not often found in American writing. Rashad makes the most of this opportunity and executes a tour-de-force performance.

HEAD OF PASSES PUBLIC THEATER/NEWMAN THEATER 425 LAFAYETTE STREET, NEW YORK  Cast: Alana Arenas, Francois Battiste, Kyle Beltran, J. Bernard Calloway, Robert Joy, John Earl Jelks, Phylicia Rashad and Arnetia Walker  Director: Tina Landau PLAYWRIGHT: TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY
(L–R) John Earl Jelks, Arnetia Walker, Phylicia Rashad, and Francois Battiste appear in “Head of Passes,” which tells the tale of a woman of faith pushed to the limits. (Joan Marcus)

Director Tina Landau rises to the occasion in conveying the play’s depth and importance.

G.W. Mercier deserves particular attention for his extraordinary set, which, when required, demonstrates a house devastated by a storm, including falling planks and indications of a flooded living room.

His efforts are enhanced by Jeff Croiter’s lighting design. Sound is by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, and wig and hair design by Robert-Charles Vallance.

‘Head of Passes’
The Public Theater’s Newman Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Tickets: 212-967-7555, or PublicTheater.org
Running Time: 2 hours (one intermission)
Closes: April 24

Diana Barth writes for various publications including her own New Millennium. She may be contacted at DiaBarth@juno.com