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Disaster Zone: ‘Head of Passes’ Confronts Catastrophe Head-On


It’s raining in the Louisiana house where Tarell Alvin McCraney sets his new play. And not just outside: Water streams through the ceiling, pooling on the living room floor. McCraney’s potent, poetic Head of Passes — expertly directed by Tina Landau — is domestic drama in an apocalyptic key, and this cloudburst is a harbinger of deluges to come.

Shelah (Phylicia Rashad), an imposing but loving materfamilias, presides over her family’s homestead in the Louisiana wetlands known as Head of Passes. Today her sons, Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway), have orchestrated a family reunion for her birthday. But as relations gather and the ceiling continues to drip, buried traumas surface and a series of catastrophes unfolds. The siblings, smarting from old wounds, are sucked into violent confrontations. Meanwhile, Shelah’s own foundations are cracking: internally, from illness — and outwardly, as the house itself crumbles and sinks.

McCraney takes inspiration from the Book of Job: As Shelah struggles to understand these blows, realism gives way to a poetic confrontation (performed virtuosically by Rashad) with the God who has wracked her world.

McCraney’s work frequently resides in such half-mythical terrain, combining Southern landscapes with epic tales. This heightened tenor elevates his new play beyond domestic fare. One familial secret would make this an all too familiar affair, but McCraney’s cataclysms keep expanding. In so doing, Head of Passes issues a warning: Tend to those foundations, or face the inevitable cracks.

Head of Passes
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street