Los Angeles Theater Review: HEAD OF PASSES (Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on September 25, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


I will remember Phylicia Rashad’s performance in Head of Passes until the day I die. She is an emotional hurricane, often still, even funny—while in the eye of the storm—but then raging and howling with a pain rooted so deeply inside the love and bondage of family and faith, that you can’t breathe. Sometimes, neither can she.

Rashad is a miracle of art and life, and we are blessed by the ferocity and tenderness of her gifts. Using a word like “blessed” feels right; Rashad’s character here is intertwined with the love/hate relationship we have with God, or with whatever universal force we hope will bring us joy, yet fear will visit us with pain and struggle. She is faith in human form.

This is not to understate the audacious power of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, Tina Landau’s expressive, kinetic direction, or the nuanced performances from the remarkable cast, especially Alana Arenas, who manages to make her character seem like the weakest link in the family, but also the only one who sees the world clearly. I rarely think in terms of ultimate superlatives—best, worst, funniest, saddest, or whatever—but this is the best play I’ve seen in years, the best cast, and the best, most luminous, truest, most shattering performance I’ve seen by anyone on a stage in Los Angeles, New York, or London. I reference those cities, only because they are where I have seen theater in the last few years. Head of Passes was commissioned and premiered in Chicago at Steppenwolf.

At rise, we’re in “The Distant Present” (a phrase I love) in a sprawling house near the Head of Passes, where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. Shelah (Rashad) is the matriarch. A surprise party for her birthday is threatened by an oncoming storm—in more ways than one. She speaks to God directly at times, with respect, but also with great familiarity and ease. They have been having conversations for many, many years.

Shelah doesn’t remember it’s her birthday. Her mind is on settling the future for her children, Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway), Aubrey (Francois Battiste), and Cookie (Arenas). She is concerned with their inheritance, literally and figuratively, and is not being honest with them about her declining health. She is joined by a family friend, Mae (Jacqueline Williams), and a sort of jack-of-all-trades and friend, Creaker (Wesley Thompson), as well as Creaker’s son Crier (Kyle Beltran). An unexpected and unwelcome guest is her doctor (James Carpenter) who is dead-set on making sure her family understands how little time she may have left, particularly since she is refusing the experimental treatment he advises.

For a while, the play seems like a solid family drama interspersed with lively bits of comedy. Had that been all McCraney had on his mind, that would have been fine. I love a “talk” play, or a “living room” play, or a “well-made” play—pick a pejorative term. At every turn, though, the narrative surprises, and before you know it, the play has morphed organically into a modern Greek tragedy—with stunning effects from scenic designer G.W. Mercer, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, and sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.

When my own mother died, far too young at the age of 49, she looked up at me once in a moment of incomprehension over a family member’s cavalier attitude, and said simply, “Doesn’t he realize, I’m fighting for my life?” The phrase is beyond cliché—until someone dying says it. Then it’s the most devastating thing you’ve ever heard. Head of Passes is like that. Sometimes the characters say familiar things, or make observations about life and God that have certainly been made before. That doesn’t matter. These people are fighting for their lives, though at times, Shelah fights not to live, but to die. Unspeakable tragedies pile up, and a bewildered Mae asks her, “What did you do? What did you do?” She needs to know what awful, evil thing Shelah did to provoke God’s fury. Surely God would never punish a truly good person the way he is punishing Shelah.

Shelah’s faith is tested, lost, found, and lost again. God embraces her and she embraces Him with a love so brutal it is impossible to imagine either of them surviving. You must see this play. When I say you will be on the edge of your seat, don’t think of it as an expression you’ve heard before. Imagine your whole being—body, heart, and soul—taken in hand by Phylicia Rashad and company. They pull you forward to the edge of your seat with the force of God in their fingertips. Resistance is impossible.

photos by Craig Schwartz (click on picture for larger image)

Head of Passes
Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum
Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on October 22, 2017
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rita Woodfork October 18, 2017 at 1:34 pm

I went to see this play last night. I think it could stand a little tweaking – but don’t get this comment confused. It is the bomb! Ms. Rashad brings it—and the audience—to a place that has you thinking long after the curtain call. Kudos to a fine actress and fine cast.


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