BWW Review: Phylicia Rashad Brilliant in HEAD OF PASSES
Does everyone believe in God? Obviously, no. Some do and some do not. For those that do, how deep does that faith go? Shelah (Phylicia Rashad) lives in her old decaying homestead in Head of Passes, where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. The time is now. She is dying but will not be treated by a doctor, even though Doctor Anderson (James Carpenter) is a family friend. She believes in the power of the Lord, and when the play begins, she has called a family gathering to bring her sons and daughter together to discuss sharing the property she is about to will them. Currently at MTF, Tarell Alvin McCraney has created a powerful play Head of Passes with the brilliant Rashad heading an outstanding cast of eight, directed meticulously by Tina Landau, through October 22.
So set on her plan, Shelah has overlooked her own birthday, but the servants Creaker (John Earl Jelks), Crier (Kyle Beltran), Aunt Mae (Jacqueline Williams), sons Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway) and even Dr, Anderson (Carpenter) come to party away the evening. As it turns out there is a deluge, with rain falling through the creaky roof into the family's living room. Creaker and the boys put down buckets and do their best to keep the rain contained, and with Shelah's consistent faith, she is determined to carry on a family meeting in spite of the mess. In walks even more disaster. Cookie (Alana Arenas), Shelah's deceased husband's estranged daughter - who she took in as her own child - shows up, not for the meeting or a party, but to ask for money. She is pregnant, a substance abuser and is not above stealing Shelah's jewelry, even after Shelah has offered her the chance to get money from her purse upstairs. What follows is one tragedy after another. Aubrey and Spencer, suspicious of Cookie's theft, go after her in the pouring rain, and during the night both Aubrey and Cookie are killed. What is most curious first of all is Shelah's plea to the Lord to take her and bring earthly peace to her children, and then the following morning when she learns of their deaths, it is her reaction to the Lord that is at once riveting yet stupefying.
In Act Two, McCraney has written an incredibly emotional monologue in which Shelah pours out her heart to God, asking why? She stands her ground and challenges her God. What has she done to deserve these losses? She lived for her children, taught them well, and would expect the Lord to take her home, a dying woman, and not her children. Even more unbelievable is the fact that Shelah's faith is still so deep that she kneels, then sits in a pool of water - the rain has caused the roof to collapse, and the house is in shambles, water covering the floors. Shelah has resigned to expect nothing from God, yet she sits and continues to wait. With a tinge of Waiting for Godot in our minds, we watch a real woman as she is prepared to die, then live and fight and die once more for her faith in a God who will never come.
If the play sounds painful, it assuredly is, but there is a lot of humor sprinkled throughout, and Rashad's mulit-layered, flesh and blood portrayal is utterly amazing. She keeps the tattered emotional state going throughout and pulls us in with her sheer guts and drive in a tour.de.force performance.
Under Landau's stellar direction, the rest of the cast all have shining moments in the spotlight. Cookie's scene with Shelah is spellbindingly delivered by Arenas; Creaker and Crier have their own family squabbles, but Jelks and Beltran keep us amused; Battiste and Calloway portray dutiful sons; Carpenter makes the doctor a true friend of Shelah's in his concern for her health...and Williams steals her moments without sayng a word. Removing her purse from the chair when she realizes Cookie is about to enter is an hysterical move and funny moment.
Don't miss Head of Passes! It abounds in tragedy but with great comedic moments to keep you riveted. The writing, the direction and the acting are all astounding. You will be thoroughly mesmerized, especially by Rashad, and entertained.
(photo credit: Craig Schwartz)