Friday, April 8, 2016

Off-Broadway Review: Head of Passes

Phylicia Rashad and company. Photo: Joan Marcus
Head of Passes
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tina Landau
The Public Theater

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
Shelah's (Phylicia Rashad) family reunites to celebrate her birthday and to save her from the leaking roof of her home on a stormy night in Mississippi, at the mouth of the mighty river known as Head of Passes, where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. But instead of celebration, the night brings a tempest of tension, heartbreak and despair. Only a deep faith will bring Shelah through this terrible night inspired by the biblical book of Job.

Dr. Anderson ( Robert Joy) shows up and urges Shelah to share some unhappy news about her health, but the matriarch wants to be able to tell her family in her own way. she has another priority: reconcilation between sons Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway ), Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and their half sister, Cookie (Alana Arenas), the illegitimate daughter of Shelah's deadbeat husband who brought her home one day and insisted that his wife raise her.

Shelah is hoping her children will take over the home where she used to run a business (we presume a Bed and Breakfast) and live there together in harmony where Cookie's little boys can run and play. Right now, their situation is less than safe as Cookie runs with an unsafe crowd as part of her drug-using life.

Hopes for a happy reunion don't go as planned, however, with conflict between friends/servants tipsy Creaker Johnson (John Earl Jelks) and his wannabee-singer son, Criar (Kyle Beltram) errupting, Specer injuring himself while trying to stop the roof from leaking gallons into the living room and coughing fits robbing Shelah of her breath. Money matters also cloud the gathering: Shelah forgives a debt owed her by friend Mae (a humorous Arnetia Walker) and Cookie doesn't want to stay for the party. She just wants some cash and when she thinks Shelah has denied her request, she robs the woman who loved her like a daughter with horrible consequences for the entire family.

What Are the Highlights?
Taut direction by Tina Landau keeps our attention focused.

Phylicia Rashad is at the top of her game, turning n the most powerful performance I have seen her give. She gets the whole "faith under pressure" thing and we are amazed by her strength and ability not to curse God (as Job does not do in the bible story, despite losing everything: his heath, his wealth and his family). Her prayers are heart-felt, her performance full of emotion and grace. Look for some award nominations here.

The set by G.W. Mercier is amazing, showing the former grandeur of the house, its destruction and  the dilapidated ruins, a flooded metaphor of Shelah's life.

Tarell Alvin McCraney's script is compelling and more engaging than his Brother/Sister Plays, which also ran at the Public. He doesn't try to recreate the story of Job, but borrows inspiration from it to write a study on suffering and faith. At the play's start, trying to figure out whether potato salad which wasn't refrigerated right away is the biggest concern. The significance of worrying about the trivial is not lost on us as the family soon discovers that all can be lost in the blink of an eye. When that happens, will out faith be strong enough to see us through?

What are the Lowlights?
Some confusion about how Creaker and Criar fit into the picture (and even who is who for a bit). There's a minor subplot involving Dr. Anderson's relationship with Shelah, but it isn't really explored.

Well, the tale is kind of a bummer, particularly if you know the story of Job. For those less biblically versed, it still is a bummer, but you won't see it coming.

The play, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, probably would be better trimmed a bit and presented as a one-act instead of breaking two hours with an intermission.

More Information:

Head of Passes has been extended through May 1 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 and 7:30 pm; (No performance on Sunday, April 17 at 7:30 pm). Tickets start at $60:; 212-967-7555; Box Office.

Additional Credits:
Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter; Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; Wig and Hair Hesign by Robert-Charles Vallance.

-- Language

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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