“One day you will know what it means to hold onto something.” In Head of Passes, a play by Academy Award winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), a dying family matriarch is struggling to hold onto a lot of things—her literally crumbling home at the mouth of the Mississippi River, her health, and her complicated relationships with her three children. But as increasingly devastating misfortunes keep befalling her, all she can do is bargain with God, clinging to hope that her worst nightmare coming true is somehow part of a larger plan.
Head of Passes ran in New York at the Public Theater in 2016, and much of the cast and creative team has returned for the current production at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum. Notably, Tony-winner Phylicia Rashad is reprising the lead role of Shelah in a truly tour-de-force performance that makes every other element of the play seem secondary. Directed by Tina Landau, the action occurs over the course of two defining days in Shelah’s life. It begins on her birthday, with her oldest son, Aubrey (Francois Battiste) attempting to throw her a party. Shelah has no interest in a celebration, but is determined to bring her three children together under her roof so she can deliver some sad and important news—her health is failing, and she has recently learned from her doctor, Dr. Anderson (James Carpenter) that she likely does not have much time left. Family employee Creaker (John Earl Jelks), his dreamer of a son, Crier (Kyle Beltran), and family friend, Mae (Jacqueline Williams) round out the cast of characters.
The first complication occurs when the roof she hoped to gather everyone under starts leaking copiously around them during a rainstorm. As the impressive, dynamic set (G.W. Mercier) slowly falls to pieces around her, Shelah’s mission becomes further complicated by the arrival of her stepdaughter, Cookie (Alana Arenas). Shelah loves Cookie, a baby her late husband brought home one day, the product of an affair, as if she were her own. Cookie is an addict, a thief, and a manipulator, and Aubrey and his brother, Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway) constantly warn their mother not to trust her. But when Cookie drops a bombshell of a revelation about her childhood, Shelah is left reeling. To detail what happens next would simply give too much away, but it is worth noting that the play is a modern parable inspired by the Book of Job. The theme of religion is strong throughout—Shelah regularly addresses God, looking to him for answers and guidance, even more so when the unimaginable happens and the situation seems to deteriorate far beyond repair.
Head of Passes is essentially a vehicle for one powerful performance, a performance that is literally solo at some times and merely feels that way at others. This is Shelah’s story, and the other characters simply exist to flesh out her world. Without an actress as formidable as Rashad, this play would be largely unremarkable, with scenes that often overstay their welcome. The subject matter, plot twists, and allegorical elements are not attempting to reinvent the wheel. Structurally, almost the entirety of act two is devoted to Shelah, alone onstage, speaking to God in a reactionary monologue about the many tragedies that have befallen her. Rashad is good enough that you wonder if there’s a simpler version of this play that’s just an extraordinary solo performance, since that is what it may as well be anyway.
If you set the theatrics aside and focus on only the meat of the story, this would probably be a 20 minute play, which is to be expected given that parables are defined by their simplicity. It is also not very grounded, instead dealing in an incredibly improbable series of events that adds to the larger-than-life atmosphere the blustering production creates. And nothing is more larger-than-life than the set, which is an impressive feat of stagecraft that deservedly earned its own round of applause at the end of act one and will make you rethink what is possible onstage. Issues aside, Head of Passes is very worth seeing for the master class in acting Rashad is giving.
Head of Passes runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through October 22nd. Tickets start at $25 and the running time is two hours including one intermission. To purchase tickets, click here.