As one of the resident Center Theatre Group artists, Phylicia Rashad has always been esteemed by the LA theatre community. I'm a fan. Four years ago, her direction of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone was one of my favorite experiences at the Mark Taper Forum. For her starring role in Tarell Alvin McCraney's Head of Passes, I was joined by my theatre and church buddy Chelsie, as she is also a big fan of Ms. Rashad. Also, although we didn't get to see him perform, I was so proud of find my friend Brad in the program, understudying three roles. It's one step closer to living the dream for us theatre dreamers; so thank you Brad for hanging in there and giving us all the hope that it is possible! Plus he'd better make it on stage because he's a really talented, super hard-working, charming, humble, amazing guy!
Head of Passes begins as a sort of family drama about forgiveness, moving on and accepting family for being messed up, but for also being family. It was't too long into the performance that I wrote down, "total Fences vibes going on" in my notebook. And in a weird way, it's almost as if the playwright chose to begin the play where Fences left off, except instead of Pittsburgh, at the Head of Passes, where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. There's a very similar family dynamic going on. The play has also received a lot of hype as the playwright already has an Oscar under his belt for his Best Adapted Screenplay for Moonlight, based on his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. His writing is powerful, especially so in a number of Ms. Rashad's prayer monologues. But whip out your boxes of Kleenex for a super dark turn in Act II. And one hell of a transformation from set designer, G.W. Mercier.
It's difficult to express my feelings on the show without giving away what's up in act II, which you may already be aware of, but just in case: *SPOILER ALERT* So the play holds inspiration in one of the Old Testaments's most uplifting books (wink), the story of Job. If you want to make this show a more personal experience, just imagine the worst possible thing that could happen to you, and in the second act of this play, that is pretty much what actually happens. If you come from a more spiritual background and are familiar with the story of Job, after the antagonizing trials and horrific devastation thrust upon him, in the end God blesses him back for his losses tenfold. Job has a happy ending. This play ends in tragedy mode. And it is up to the viewer to decide where the story goes from there. Does Shelah continue to collapse and fall apart, suffering in her illness and loss? Does death put her out of the misery of her hell on earth? Or does God turn her present circumstances around 180 degrees and bless her plentifully? Chelsie, Brad and I discussed this for a while outside on the plaza after the performance. Because we share a common spiritual background, we are all mostly on the same page as far as the ending; we wanted to believe that she would move forward in strength and be blessed in her future. However, we agreed that to someone without a practicing faith, the ending might come off as a case in support of no god. I talked with another friend who had seen the show that comes from a more agnostic background. She disagreed, saying that the ending did not support the no-God argument, but more that the more we put our faith in something, the stronger we become. I'd be curious to see how audiences from different backgrounds respond to this show. *END SPOILER ALERT*
"I had given up chaos and He gave me room."
Phylicia Rashad upholds her incredibly high standard of delivering powerful art. Her performances and dedication to the American theatre are constantly inspiring to me. In this story she reminded me a lot of my own grandmother, Mumča, and how Mumča is constantly being judged for the way she carries out family business, and being asked for help when someone in the family needs it. It's a lot to bear, but she does it out of love for her family. Over the years I have watched this become more and more challenging for her, as the family grows and gets tested in new and more difficult ways. But somehow Mumča always pulls it off with dignity, and takes care of everyone. This play made me think about writing a play about that, about Mumča and all she does for us.
Head of Passes runs through October 22 at the Mark Taper Forum. Either take a drink or hit up a comedy club after because you're going to need it. This is heavy.