Head of Passes

by Marcus Scott

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday March 31, 2016

Robert Joy and Phylicia Rashad
Robert Joy and Phylicia Rashad   

"Why do the righteous suffer?" Dripping of existential crisis, such a colossal question looms over "Head of Passes," an astonishing but haphazard modern retelling of Job by the award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, which opened Tuesday in Newman Theater at The Public Theater.

The play takes place 95 miles south of New Orleans, in a former bed-and-breakfast and boarding house for oil-drillers, located at the mouth of the Mississippi River as it spreads into the Gulf of Mexico. The story follows Shelah (played by with majestic grace by high priestess of theatre and television Phylicia Rashad), a decaying widowed matriarch bent on bequeathing the home built by her deceased husband to her sons, smooth-talking golden boy Aubrey (a heartfelt Francois Battiste) and gentle giant Spencer (a hilarious J. Bernard Calloway), in hopes they will continue their father's legacy and resuscitate the family business and her progressively dilapidating house.

She also intends on gifting provisions to family leper Cookie (a harrowing Alana Arenas), her husband's truculent illegitimate daughter juggling drug addiction, homelessness and bad relationships with two children. Shelah just wants to make sure everyone is taken care of in her old age. Only she's forgotten a very important detail: Shelah's family have gathered at her home alongside with her longtime medical doctor (Robert Joy) and best friend Mae (Arnetia Walker), to celebrate her birthday.

There to make sure everything is in order at the home are father-son catering team, absentee patriarch Creaker (John Earl Jelks) and rebel child Crier (a silken voiced Kyle Beltran), who have their own drama to sort out. However, as torrential rain builds into a monsoon crescendo, the home begins to be pulled into an ocean of tropical depression and Shelah grapples with telling her family that she is dying, though it's quite apparent with her wheezing and blood-curdling whooping cough. What begins as a traditional American family comedy with kitchen sink naturalism morphs into a full-blown fantastical magical realism.

In the Book of Job, as presented in the Old Testament, God and the Devil deliberate on the existence of intrinsic purity. Granting Satan permission to strip Earth's most devout man of all his luxuries, land, vigor and loved ones, God watches from on high as his loyal servant falls into blue ruin due to relentless affliction. The parable is perhaps most important because it inquires the existence of a benevolent God, asks why is there so much suffering in the world and ponders why bad things happen to good people.

On stage, the tale of the pious prophet and Biblical figure was tackled with "God's Favorite," an anticlimactic and kitsch black comedy retelling by Kennedy Center Honoree Neil Simon (who was inspired to pen the play after losing his first wife to bone cancer at 41), and "J.B.," a rarely-performed free verse epic drama that earned poet Archibald MacLeish a third Pulitzer.

In the landmark musical, "The Fiddler on the Roof," itself based on an 1894 Yiddish memoir by Sholem Alchem, playwright Joseph Stein pulled from various moments of Job's story, coloring many of Tevye's monologues with many of the questions that plagued Job. The fable was also influential in the genetic make-up of the Coen brothers' maudlin 2009 film, "A Serious Man," which was nominated for two Oscars, and Terrence Malick's polarizing masterpiece "The Tree of Life," which won the Palme d'Or two years later.

Nevertheless, in McCraney's rendition, commissioned by the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago where the play was staged in 2013 without these cosmic forces present, the play falls into the type of psychodrama that befalls a lot of plays with religious overtones, and at times, even heads towards Tyler Perry territory with some of the reveals in the second act. Oddly enough, this is where this oddly uneven play is quickened.

When faced with personal tragedies in the second act, the audience is faced with a dramatic monologue from Shelah in which she ferociously interrogates her own faith and unshakable conviction. Known to audiences for her turns in "August: Osage County," "Gem of the Ocean" and her Tony-winning performance as Lena Younger in "A Raisin in the Sun," or as the iconic Clair Huxtable of "The Cosby Show," for which she earned multiple Emmy awards, the fathoms in which Rashad goes through in coloring the complexity of this put-upon elderly woman in McCraney's play is the stuff of magic, and the actress fashions a bravura performance.

In a 25-minute constellation of virtuoso soliloquys in which she confronts her Lord and Savior, Shelah, a riptide of emotions, at first points the finger at God before pointing the finger at herself. A raged-fueled intrapsychic sea change, as Shelah, Rashad analyzes her marriage, the nepotism she bestowed upon her children, her "blindness" to the sins that took place under her roof and her high 'n mighty narcissism among church folk, a taxing dismemberment in her dark night of the soul that evolves into one of the most visceral moments of the 2015-2016 theatre season.

It is this high-spirited performance that rescues an otherwise wayward play. The ingenious set created G.W. Mercier echoes the canonical endeavors of McCraney's script with Biblical sorcery and executes a kind of theatricality that hasn't been experienced since the final moments of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's "Appropriate."

Class and education are defined brilliantly by Toni-Leslie James and Jeff Croiter's prismatic lighting is heaven-sent. The cast, under the exquisite direction of McCraney's frequent collaborator Tina Landau, adds nuance to the poetry and tongue-in-cheek conviviality of the playwright.

But make no mistake; Rasha is in a league of her own. Known for playing momentous matriarchs with angst bubbling under the surface, she may be creating her greatest work to date.

"Head of Passes" runs through April 24 at Newman Theater at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. in New York. For tickets or information, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org/