Head of Passes
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Head of Passes is both the title of rising playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s newest play and the part of lower Louisiana where three passages of the Mississippi join in shifting swamps and sands into turbulent currents of the Gulf of Mexico. It is in this sparsely populated, often stormy and flooded setting that we meet the gathering African-American Reynolds clan one rainy night as they come to surprise the aging matriarch, Shelah, on the eve of her birthday. As each person arrives, the bantering, laughter, stories, and ribbing among family members, long-time friends and employees increase as do the roof leaks in the entry way and living room. We as audience are quickly drawn into familiar-enough family frictions and fun; but we also soon learn that our stalwart, white-haired family anchor is seriously ill and is gearing herself up to confront her loved ones with the news and perhaps to pass on to her three children some words of legacy and advice. We also sense that each of the children has his/her own agenda, too, that may or may not benefit the others. As the storm’s fury increases and the buckets and towels begin to fail in their task of controlling the many leaks, the atmosphere among the family also gets a bit darker and ominous. Long-held secrets are finding their way to the surface; long-time sibling tensions are once again erupting; and the electricity in the inside air is beginning to match that on the outside where wind and rain continue to roar. Midnight birthday cake and candles are not the icing that can make everything sunny and happy. The first act ends with the entire evening’s once-happy celebration and reunion literally come crashing down before us.
Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s Shelah commands both stage and story in compelling, biblical proportions. We meet her as a woman of much faith who can be loving, pious, stubborn, spry, and demanding all in the same sentence. As the evening progresses, we watch the years of ignoring sins and short-comings of those around her burrow into her face and weigh down her proud stature; and we hear in her increasingly labored breathing the disease she is suffering in her lungs and the dis-ease she is feeling in her heart. This is a woman ready to meet her Maker, and she begins to see a beautiful, yet menacing Angel (played with majesty by Sullivan Jones) whom she wants to lead her ‘home.’ But we and she will learn that, like Job, it is not going to be an easy departure. She and her steadfast faith are to be sorely tested. Her Second Act monologue prayer turns into a mighty torrent of anger and on into a haunting ‘Why me?’ as she confronts her God of the disasters that have befallen her in this evening of shifting sands and rising waters. The performance of Ms. Bruce is one that captivates and shakes us to the very core.
While the spotlight is always on Shelah, she is supported by an excellent ensemble where each member has moments to shine forth. Francois Battiste is the fancy-dressed, smooth-talking, ego-centric son Aubrey who can bombastically explode in one moment as he tries to take command of mother and household and who will then in the next moment sink on his knees with head in his mother’s lap as the prodigal son who clearly just wants his mother to adore him most. His brother, Spencer (Brian Tyree Henry) is quite the opposite as the over-sized, rather clumsy son who can also raise his voice in demands and claims but who will quickly slink into the background in both his mother’s and brother’s eyes. The two of them have not-so-good feelings for their half-sister Cookie, played sleekly by Nikkole Salter as a hip, drug-leaning step-daughter who is here somewhat out of obligation and love but more so to get her due from a family she feels much abused by. Lighter moments are provided by Shelah’s partying and often sacrilegious friend Mae (Kimberly Scott); by her giant and terribly funny house employee Creaker (whose movements by Michael A. Shepperd match his name); and by Creaker’s sweet son Crier (Jonathan Burke) who only wants to sing and impress with beautiful, mournful songs. James Carpenter rounds out this stellar cast as the white Dr. Anderson who has long history, deep feelings, and some secrets of his own that are all entwined into this family.
Equally starring in this production are G. W. Skip Mercier and Scott Zielinski as Scenic and Lighting Designers, respectively. The once-inn, now family home takes on a life (and death) of its own that mirrors what is happening to Shelah and her family. Its opening and inviting beauty splits and shatters in ways most memorable and shocking as the story and night progress. The biblical-sized, rising tensions and woes are also reflected in the rising waters, so realistically presented in captivating lighting effects.
Tarell Alvin McCraney is truly one of America’s premier, young playwrights who has a knack for stories that shake our very core and ones that remain long in our memory and soul. In the Bay Area, we recently reveled in his Brother/Sister trilogy that played in one year on three stages. Later this spring, we will have a chance to immerse ourselves in the very moving, spirit-raising Choir Boy (not to be missed at Marin Theatre). But for now, we are truly lucky to have his Head of Passes to jar our own senses of what faith means to us and how will we each react when ours is inevitably tested.
Rating: 5 E’s