What on earth does “Head of Passes” mean? Let us clear that up quickly. It is the mouth of the Mississippi River, a desolate wetland where the river breaks into three branches as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The sense of place permeates MacArthur Genius award winner, Tarell McCraney’s play at the Taper. The weather rages outside; rain falls outside and in. The visuals are all the more poignant in light of the natural disaster headlines of the past few weeks. Scenic Designer, G.W. Mercier’s hard working set makes it palpable.
Shelah, (Phylicia Rashad in a fervent performance) lives in the gracious home her deceased husband built as a commodious bed and breakfast. It was where their children, her sons Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway), plus Cookie (Alana Arenas) her husband’s illegitimate daughter whom Shelah raised as her own, grew up. She has two servants, Creaker (John Earl Jelks) and his son Crier (Kyle Beltran) who now have a pseudo familial relationship with Shelah who is widowed and alone, but carries on an intense dialogue with God. There is a lot packed into this two hour drama. Shelah is such a religious woman she will not allow deviled eggs in her house. It is clear she has some sort of pulmonary condition; she has asked, or should I say ordered, her sons to the house this evening and has told Spencer to get his estranged sister to come too.
Shelah has a plan. God is in on it. It just happens to be Shelah’s birthday. Her friend Mae (Jacqueline Williams) shows up; that was not in her plan. Then Dr. Anderson (James Carpenter) drops by, concerned about Shelah who does not intend to turn over disease management to her white doctor, nor does she want his assistance informing her family of her dire health and the options for managing her condition. He was not part of her plan either. As caring as he is, he is tone deaf to his own insensitivity, “It’s raining, no black people are going to show up for the party.” Her intention is to get her children to come back to this house to live and for her to quietly leave this earth with them in the house supporting one another. Perhaps we should say fantasy rather than plan, because no one is going along with her ideas.
“Head of Passes” is an African American saga. Yet the themes are by no means exclusive to blacks. Abuse, sibling rivalry, denial, intergenerational strain, the themes are universal. But the tone of “Head of Passes” is clearly African American. Much has been made lately of the question, can someone who is not a particular ethnicity write a character from another culture? Some people want to extend that issue and say no one who is not of a specific gender can write a character of another gender. Those positions can be taken too far. One can argue that McCraney is establishment; after all, in bouquet of achievements he is the Chair of the Yale Playwriting Department. But he is also black and he has written a play that would be almost impossible for anyone not part of African American culture to write. Having said that, his female characters ring as true as a woman writer’s would, likewise his white Dt. Anderson.
For the most part, Act I is straight forward family drama. Dialogue is mumbled at times or obscured by cross talk, but the dynamics are clear. Shelah is driven by her faith. Her children are driven by their own drummers. God is her most frequent listener.
The Book of Job was at the genesis of “Head of Passes.” Perhaps knowing that informs an audience about the cataclysm about to befall Shelah, though I do not think you need to be a bible scholar to appreciate the story. In the playwright’s words, “We all think that we’re living in Topeka Kansas where nothing can kind of go wrong, until a tornado whips around and we land in Oz.” Most of Act II belongs to Shelah. Phylicia Rashad delivers a lengthy, enraged, soliloquy that is worth the price of admission. Rashad is a tornado, hers is equal to the storm that rages around her.