New Play at Berkeley Rep

By Carol Benet, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area theater
Weeks starting May 5, 2015
Vol. 17, No. 53

BERKELEY — Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Heads of Passes” is a faith-based play with a topline cast about family conflicts in the Deep South, loosely based on the Biblical “Book of Job.” With added rewrites after its Berkeley Rep run, it will be headed to New York City.

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is big news in the Bay Area currently. This MacArthur Genius Award winner will have two plays in two theaters this spring. June 4 “Choir Boy” starts at the Marin Theatre Company. Presently his “Head of Passes” runs at the Berkeley Rep.

“Heads of Passes” is the land where the Mississippi River runs into the Gulf of Mexico and it is made up of muddy, shifting and highly unstable terrain. It is said that Louisiana loses an acre of land every 33 minutes as this changing wetlands are constantly dumping into the Gulf. Who would build their home there? Who would stay there knowing that hurricanes are constant? We in the Bay Area understand well this gamble with fate.

The play starts in the well-tended and lovely bourgeois house of the widow Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce). Her servants, the father Creaker (Michael A. Shepperd) and his son Crier (Jonathan Berke), are dressed up in ties, white shirts and black pants for serving at the upcoming gathering of the family. The elderly mother Shelah insists that this is not a “party” but still they string decorative lights from the ceiling. The three children are returning home at their mother’s invitation.

First comes Aubrey (Francois Battiste), a well-dressed, successful adult. From the conversation with his mother we find out that the other two grown children are not doing as well as he. Spencer (Brian Tyree Henry) comes in to a barrage of criticism because he did not properly oversee the new roof through which the rain is leaking into the living room. Cookie (Nikkole Salter) is an angry and combative woman who needs money even to pay the man who drove her the 75 miles to the remote location.

A family friend Mae (Kimberly Scott) is part of the gathering that the servants are preparing. She with Creaker provide almost hysterical interludes of dancing, joking and merry-making to the otherwise grim story unfolding on stage. The rain persists and soon the buckets are unable to keep it out for long. Storming wind (sound by Robin Milburn and Michael Bodeen) accompany occasional power failures. The nervous weather reflects the agitation among the characters on stage. The only white member of the party is Dr. Anderson (James Carpenter) with whom Shelah shares a few secrets, one of them about her deteriorating health. She has gathered the family to discuss her will.

Before she can do this though, family dynamics unexpectedly take over. In the hurricane, the house, brilliantly engineered by set designer G.W. Skip Mercier, starts to deteriorate. Throughout a mysterious and ever-present Angel (Sullivan Jones) accompanies Shelah in her alone times where she is ready to meet her maker.

The play is roughly based on the Book of Job, a work that the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where the play originated, read thoroughly. Tina Landau, ensemble colleague of McCraney’s , worked with him on the creation of this play and here she is its masterful director.

In the “Book of Job,“everything is perfect until it the moment when it suddenly starts to unravel. When everything is lost at the end Job cries out to his lord. And at the end of this play Shelah faces the similar predicaments as disaster is piled upon disaster. She wonders whether there is a divine order? And like Job she asks, “Where are you?” and cries out “I want to know why.”

This is a play that does not provide any answers. Shelah’s last monolog is a rant, one that is difficult to maintain for the length of time required. But otherwise the play is well-constructed, fast-moving and fascinating. It lasts 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.

The entire cast except for Carpenter makes its Berkeley Rep. debut. This work has has undergone several re-writes since its Steppenwolf opening and will be polished further before going to the Public Theatre in New York. As it is, it is almost ready.

“Head of Passes” runs through May 24 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley.
© Carol Benet 2015
Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.

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