Head of Passes

I don't like knowing a lot about a show before seeing it. Sure, sometimes I do, but some of my favorite experiences have been when I had no idea what the show was about, who the writer is, had no expectations of the cast (I'm thinking of Circle Mirror Transformation). I like to be surprised, and I like being sure that my reaction is my own, not filtered through someone else's lens. But sometimes, like when I go to the ballet, it's beneficial to read through the program notes, if there are any, once you're at the theatre. It can help you understand what's happening while it's happening, instead of having to sort through things in hindsight.

Such was the case with Head of Passes, the new play from Tarell Alvin McCraney (Choir Boy), directed by Tina Landau. The program notes explain the play's inspiration, the biblical story of Job, and the ensuing debates about his struggle. The notes also speak to the title of the play, a geographical reference to the wetlands region of Louisiana, "where the three main branches of the Mississippi River meet the Gulf of Mexico." That explanation and a brief overview of the region's history help give the action of Head of Passes some context.

Now, surely some would argue that a good play doesn't require this kind of explanation or prior knowledge. And, surely, one could enjoy and be moved by the goings on and performances in Head of Passes without said knowledge. But having those ideas in your head help to make it a richer, deeper experience, and help connect McCraney, a talented emerging playwright, to all that's come before. (Legacy, by the way, is a theme of the play.)

Matriarch Shelah (Phylicia Rashad) has summoned her children to the family home, located in the remote and weather-ravaged Head of Passes. She has some help around the house, Creaker (John Earl Jelks), who's nearly as old as Shelah, and his 18-year-old son, Crier (Kyle Beltran). Her friend Mae (Arnetta Walker), one of the few people who lives somewhat nearby, is also on hand. One by one, Shelah's children arrive: Aubrey (Francois Battiste), her first-born son and the one most involved in Shelah's day-to-day life; Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway), her bombastic son; and Cookie (Alana Arenas), her daughter. Dr. Anderson (Robert Joy) is also around, at Aubrey's request.

Much like Job, Shelah is a pious woman who is continually tested. The latest test is her health. This is why she's gathered her family; she wants to settle affairs, see to her legacy. In the end, it turns out she wasn't preparing for a reckoning with her children as much as one with God. No spoilers, but just you wait until the Shakespearean ending in which Shelah demands answers from her trusted Higher Power.

Truly, it's a riveting performance from Ms. Rashad. The content is reminiscent of many things, including President Bartlet's speech at the end of "Two Cathedrals," and many a Shakespearean soliloquy, especially from King Lear, a play Public Theater artistic director, Oskar Eustis, name checks in his program notes. (That's McCraney connecting with his progenitors.) But Rashad's performance is like nothing you've seen before. She grabs hold of the material—and you—and doesn't let go until she's had her say, the water has flooded in (literally; fantastic scenic design by G.W. Mercier), and she feels she has reached... I don't know. A resolution? A new day? Maybe just some sort of stasis? Whatever it is, it will blow you away.