Head of Passes by Tarell Alvin McCraney
The world premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes at Steppenwolf Theatre Company further exemplified the playwright’s commitments to exploring the richness of the African American experience through imaginative retellings of classic stories and myths. As with his celebrated trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, which remixes elements of Yoruba cosmology and blends them with an idiom and dramaturgy born from bayou cultures and hip-hop sensibilities, Head of Passes again witnessed McCraney synthesizing the old and new to offer a dynamic investigation of the lives of ordinary folk. Moreover, inspired by the biblical Book of Job, the play also witnessed McCraney’s continued willingness to stretch the boundaries of theatre through experimentations with form and content.
Head of Passes initially appeared to be a typical American family drama. Set in a once bustling though rapidly sinking house located in the marshlands [End Page 266] at the mouth of the Mississippi River—a place affectionately called the “Head of Passes”. Unfolding in “the distant present”—a time between “now” and “then”—the play centers on Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), a mother, widow, and former proprietor of a boarding house that at one time provided shelter and home-cooked meals to men drilling for oil in the wetlands. In the first act, McCraney shrewdly deploys the formal principles of realism to plot a surprise birthday gathering for Shelah orchestrated by her youngest son, Aubrey (played by an affecting Glenn Davis). A terrible storm raging both outside and inside the house threatens to dampen the celebratory mood, however. Shelah’s failing health—she spends much of the act battling a bloody cough and psychically readying herself for death—casts an additional pall over the celebration, as do the many devastating family secrets that resurface during the gathering, secrets that caused Shelah, much like the virtuous Job, to experience multiple crises of faith. Indeed, McCraney captivatingly extended the Book of Job’s interrogation of righteousness and suffering in the play as a way to make evident Shelah’s metaphysical quandaries, as well as to bring into relief some of the contemporary existential concerns of African American families.
Shelah, whose name aurally signifies on selah—an exclamation that punctuates many of the psalms of the Old Testament and serves as a reminder to pause and meditate—contends with tremendous tragedy in Head of Passes’ elegiac second and third acts. Indeed, the unanticipated deaths of her three adult children, Spencer (James T. Alfred), Cookie (Alana Arenas), and Aubrey, coupled with the further collapse of her home into the marshland, forces Shelah to plunge through the depths of her memories and reflect on what perhaps had wrought such suffering. What was revealed in these suspended moments of self-interrogation—moments that explicitly conjured Job’s tussles with God—were the ways in which Shelah’s blind faith had produced many blind spots: most troublingly, an inability to recognize that it was years of sexual abuse at the hands of her deceased husband, Big Aubrey, that turned Cookie toward drugs and away from the family. Anchored by Bruce’s breathtaking performance in the role, Shelah’s retreat into her own thoughts in act 3 decidedly shifted Head of Passes away from a typical family-destroyed-by-secrets drama into the realm of the mythic. Powerfully, her direct appeals to God for relief, in addition to offering some of the production’s most arresting monologues, again [End Page 267] demonstrated McCraney’s talent for exploring both the precariousness of, and the beauty in, human vulnerability.
Director Tina Landau, a fellow ensemble member and frequent collaborator with McCraney at Steppenwolf, redeployed the play’s fresh, sometimes challenging renderings of human vulnerability as an artistic resource in the premiere production. In remarkable ways, Landau and her cast—notably, Arenas as Cookie and Ron Cephas Jones and Kyle Beltran as the always bickering father/son duo Creaker and Crier—managed to foreground the nuances in the play’s wildly divergent formal and tonal shifts from the mundane to the mythic, while also accenting the grace notes in McCraney’s lush language. The addition of Beltran’s honey-toned tenor to various sung interludes, along with Bruce’s emotive renditions of several traditional hymns, certainly helped to accentuate both the mythical and musical dimensions of the playwright’s evocative dramaturgy.
The physical production, particularly David Gallo’s scenery, also added to Landau’s keen explorations of human vulnerability. In an effort to call attention to the unpredictability of the environment surrounding it, Gallo designed a towering, well-appointed home for Shelah that, at the end of the first act, slowly collapsed into the presumably unstable ground on which it was built. Beyond underscoring the severity of Shelah’s crumpling world and, of course, showcasing the vastness of the directing and design teams’ theatrical imagination, the descent of the home into the ground helped to reemphasize an aspect of McCraney’s dramaturgy that frequently goes unremarked: namely, the complex ways that the playwright often renders the relationship between his characters and their environments. If The Brother/Sister Plays—notably Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet—first displayed McCraney’s willingness to engage in eco-conversations, Head of Passes, aided by Gallo’s spectacular design, evidenced the play-wright’s increasing and intensifying desire to take up questions of ecology in his work.
Directed, designed, and performed with finesse at Steppenwolf, Head of Passes proves to be McCraney’s most ambitious play to date. The premiere production at Steppenwolf offered absorbing meditations on family, faith, and grace. Significantly, in engaging an aesthetics of recycling—that is, in reviving and revising a classic story to dramatize the pleasures and perils of contemporary African American life—McCraney, a 2013 recipient of the “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, further distinguishes himself as one of the most boldly unconventional playwrights producing new work for the American theatre.