The production of “Head of Passes” could not have come at a better or worse time. Tarell Alvin McCraney had no way of knowing that a hurricane named Harvey would devastate Houston and other hurricanes would devastate parts of various states and territories.
The play takes place in Louisiana, the scene of horrific damage during 2005 Hurricane Katrina. The title refers to the area where the Mississippi branches off into three distinct directions as it empties out into the Gulf of Mexico: the Southwest Pass, Pass A Loutre, and South Pass. The Head of Passes is located in the Plaquemines Parish of Louisiana was once the scene of a bloodless Civil War battle, but more recently it was one of the areas where the heavy rains of Hurricane Katrina caused the levees to fail. The parish is about 70 percent white and 23 percent black.
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “Head of Passes” revolves around one woman, Shelah (Phylicia Rashad) and how her family is haunted by her husband, the father of her children, including one by a different mother. The storm is both metaphorical, emotional and physical. Shelah is old and has that kind of cough that produces blood. At present, the coughing is well-managed and her secret only known to herself and her doctor (James Carpenter). The family is coming together for Shelah’s birthday, but Shelah is determined to keep the home which once served as boarding house. Her husband kept it up and kept the concern going, but he also had some other action on the side, and that’s how Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway) and Aubrey (Francois Battiste) gained a sister, Cookie (Alana Arenas).
We don’t meet Cookie in the beginning. We meet the brothers who are concerned that this grand legacy of a home has a roof so rotten that it’s raining in the living room. They don’t see the good of holding on to what was their familial home. They are here on this night because of Shelah’s birthday and old family friends Mae (Jacqueline Williams) and Creaker (Wesley Thompson ) join them. But a storm is coming and they all urge Shelah to leave the house.
When Cookie does appear, we see crumbs of how the long-dead patriarch was not a great man. Born to his mistress who died in childbirth, Cookie is the daughter that Shelah never had, but Shelah’s blindness to her husband’s imperfections translate into a blind love for Cookie. She doesn’t see her faults as do her sons.
Without seeing the realities of weather, worn roofs and wearied siblings, Shelah still hopes to re-unite her family. She believes cryptically she can do this with death and she makes a deal with an unseen God, but his answer is almost more than she can bear.
Given the timing of the play during its run at the Mark Taper Forum, this play brutally resounds. There are some who have called upon God’s name with the disasters in Houston, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. We can see the wisdom of that in this play and the reason that the humble will inherit the earth. Rashad’s powerful performance of a proud matriarch’s desperation as well as the raining and disaster set design are well worth seeing.
“Head of Passes” continues at the Mark Taper Forum until 22 October 2017. For tickets and more information go to the Center Theatre Group website.