Head of Passes
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tina Landau
Main Season · Thrust Stage
April 10–May 24, 2015
West Coast Premiere
Running time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
MacArthur “Genius” Award-winning Tarell Alvin McCraney pens a poignant and poetic new play about the journey of family and faith, trial and tribulation. In a dilapidated house near the ever-shifting mouth of the Mississippi, Shelah’s family gathers on a stormy night for her birthday—bringing ghosts and secrets of the past with them. As her roof buckles under the weight of the rain, Shelah’s convictions begin to wash away, leaving her to excavate the truths buried below. Directed by the preeminent Tina Landau in her Berkeley Rep debut, the riveting Head of Passes comes to the Bay Area straight from its acclaimed world premiere in Chicago.
Tarell Alvin McCraney · Playwright
Tina Landau · Director
G.W. Skip Mercier · Scenic Design
Toni-Leslie James · Costume Design
Scott Zielinski · Lighting Design
Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen · Sound Design
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Tara Rubin · Casting
Leslie M. Radin · Stage Manager
Francois Battiste · Aubrey
Cheryl Lynn Bruce · Shelah
Jonathan Burke · Crier
James Carpenter · Dr. Anderson
Brian Tyree Henry · Spencer
Sullivan Jones · The Angel
Nikkole Salter · Cookie
Kimberly Scott · Mae
Michael A. Shepperd · Creaker
“Big risks yield epic dramatic riches for playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney in the West Coast premiere of Head of Passes, a turbulent tale of near biblical proportions—and resonance…Cheryl Lynn Bruce incorporates the dogged patience of Job with the rage of Lear on the heath, in an overpowering Bay Area debut at the head of a no-less impressive cast, in director Tina Landau’s shattering production. This is a drama of a massive crisis of faith in a sprawling old home built on land that’s sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. McCraney started writing Passes with improvisations based on Job. That initial impulse bears breathtakingly rich fruit in the mesmerizing poetry and Bruce’s tour de force performance in the second act…The effect is riveting. The impact will linger long in your memory.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Deeply compelling…a daring work that melds the primal and the mysterious in unexpectedly probing ways…there’s no denying the poetry and insight of McCraney’s voice. G.W. Skip Mercier’s gobsmacking set design thrusts the elemental force of nature to the core of the theatrical event.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“It’s well worth spending time with this one! Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney nails the tension that goes with living in what amounts to a wildlife preserve, where forces far more powerful than our paltry human endeavors are always at work. Performed by a cast with killer acting chops…‘Powerful’ doesn’t begin to describe [Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s] character or her performance.”—Stark Insider
“McCraney…is the kind of writer who blends real-world storytelling with elements of poetry and spirit to create a heightened theatrical language that conjures a world that looks and often feels like our own but then expands or contracts to feel epic or microscopic depending on the dramatic situation. McCraney has a true gift, and it’s thrilling to fall into one of his plays. Head of Passes is an immersive experience in every way. The story McCraney unspools begins in the realm of classic American family drama—it feels like rich territory trod by O’Neill, Miller, Wilson and the like—but then becomes wholly McCraney in Act 2 when Shelah must deal with the wrath of God. Director Tina Landau also delivers an astonishing physical production that drowns Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage in rain, flood and rising tides. Head of Passes will long stand in memory as a powerful piece of American drama.”—Theater Dogs
“A stunning production…Every one of the performances is spot-on, effectively shaping distinct personalities who give credible, affecting and sometimes amusing shape to McCraney’s tale, which was inspired by the Book of Job. But this is Shelah’s drama, and Bruce dispatches it with heart, power and conviction that is as close to biblical as we’re likely to see on a stage. It’s a tour-de-force to remember, in an expertly crafted play.”—Huffington Post
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Tragedy is the end of narrative. I’m not talking about fictional tragedy, the stories we make up to describe terrible events. I’m talking about the experience itself, the encounter with an unexplained loss so painful as to send us into endless grief. The kind of loss that provokes the most obvious and most profound question: Why? Why did it happen? Why him, why her, why them, why me, why us????? Posing the question implies that there is an answer, and the eternal lack of an answer forces us to live in a different way: without a story that sufficiently explains why, without a narrative that makes sense, without a way for us to create meaning…
It seems to me that that moment, the moment we come face to face with tragedy, is the place where faith resides. Not religious faith, necessarily, but faith in anything that allows us to keep living, something that provides either distraction or comfort or meaning. Something that quiets the mind, stills the body, and fills the spirit. The options are many, from God to family to art to commerce to sports to alcohol…We are very creative/destructive when it comes to figuring out ways to survive the next day. And in the same way that tragedy marks us, so does our choice of faith. Who we choose to become in this life is defined by the way we seek solace from suffering.
Which brings us to Head of Passes, the newest play from the astonishingly gifted Tarell Alvin McCraney. Never short on ambition, Tarell has written a play about faith for people of every persuasion, from those adhering to orthodox religious principles to fervent atheists. Set in Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the story is focused on an elderly African American woman named Shelah Reynolds, whose powerful life force is centered on her love for her family and her unshakeable belief in God. Her religion resides comfortably at the core of her being, providing guidance and solace and humor as she moves through the challenges of running a business and supporting her children.
But in the blink of an eye, Shelah’s world is completely upended. A torrential wave of natural and unnatural events is unleashed upon her, with little to no explanation. As the chrysalis of her tragedy unfolds, we watch her struggle to redefine her life. A life without common understanding. A life without a narrative. Beyond rational thought and overrun with feeling. Shelah Reynolds is thrust into a world she does not know. And she pulls us along with her. She invites us into the arms of our own suffering. Into the wellspring of what lies beyond us. Into the arms of faith.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
In my neighborhood, everything is in bloom. Perennials have re-seeded and are just now showing their greenery. All those bulbs I planted last year are beginning to poke through the soil. There’s a reason, beyond the sheer beauty, that I revel in a spring garden. I love the daily reminder that my investment of past effort is so richly rewarded with vivid growth!
Spring is a time for growth and bloom at Berkeley Rep too, as evidenced by that wondrous moment every year when our magnificent wisteria transforms the Narsai M. David Courtyard. Spring is also the time of year when our fellows, the 15 young theatre practitioners whom we have collectively mentored since last August, start their own annual ritual. They start blooming too. They land jobs at theatres from Southern California to New York, and several end up working here at Berkeley Rep. Some will go on to creative jobs in other fields. This year is no different. We’ll be sending this year’s crop of fellows off to run small theatres and to be staff members at larger companies. And we’re proud of them all. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we can look across our field with great delight at the impact our investment has reaped in artists, artisans, and administrators working in theatres across this country.
But this is also a time of year when people make individual choices that are about growth and transition. We have two staff members in particular who have set this spring as a moment to make profound change. Karen Racanelli, who has been our general manager for almost 20 years, has decided that it is time to take on a new challenge, which for her will mean working to expand Hershey Felder’s already prodigious artistic empire! Although our audience members may not realize her impact, all of us at Berkeley Rep will feel her loss even as we wish her well. Kitty Muntzel, who has draped almost every woman’s costume on our stage for 25 years, has decided that it is time to put away her shears and start learning some new skills. Kitty’s career in our costume shop has brought accolades from colleagues, from designers, and from actors who have worn her clothes throughout more than two decades on our stages.
Berkeley Rep is, at its core, about people. If we are good, it is because our people are good. We take enormous pride in the quality of our staff and in the value that they all place on learning, teaching, and doing. All that learning, all that teaching is in the service of producing high-quality theatre. And it is an honor to produce that work for all of you.
The Head of Passes: A turbulent geography
By Lexi Diamond
In southernmost Louisiana, where the three passages of the Mississippi River join the Gulf of Mexico, lies a stretch of ever-shifting wetlands called the Head of Passes. It is here, in this stormy and mysterious region, that this story takes place.
On a map, the area looks like strange lace: a system of rivers, swamps, and marshes coil off from the three main rivers of the Mississippi, weaving in and out of one another to reveal the occasional landmass. Only 10 percent of what little land that does poke through the labyrinth of channels is dense enough for human use; the rest is sand, silt, and clay that shifts constantly with the movement of the waters. As a result, the region is very isolated, and though it lies just 75 miles south of New Orleans, only a single, solitary road stretches down from the bustling home of Mardi Gras to the “toe” of the bootshaped state.
The shape of the coastline is vulnerable to the many turbulent currents that converge at the Head of Passes. Those currents are unpredictable, crashing in from different directions at varying speeds. Since the 1930s, nearly 2,000 square miles of the coast of Louisiana has been swallowed up into the Gulf; that’s an area nearly the size of Delaware. More erodes every day, and it is estimated that Louisiana loses an acre of land every 33 minutes.
The wetlands break up surging flood waters and hurricanes like speed bumps, and as they disappear, they can no longer provide the protection they once did for the land to the north. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it came through the Head of Passes first, devastating the area and turning vast stretches of wetland into open water. Those landmasses that once served as blockades to oncoming storms were devoured by the onslaught, leading to the devastation of levees and floodwalls further inland and allowing tens of billions of gallons of water to spill into New Orleans. Katrina was the largest and third strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States, with winds up to 175 miles per hour, and a storm surge 20 feet high. Roughly 100,000 homes in the region were destroyed, and the final death toll came to 1,863. Some communities affected by the storm are still recovering from its destruction to this day.
Despite the remote and volatile nature of the Head of Passes, there are still some who make their homes there. They take gravel roads that stretch out from the highway to sporadic communities of houses, many of which belong to families who have lived in Louisiana for generations. They make their way to work on the ports, docks, and barges that sparsely line the swampy coasts. They adjust their way of life to the fluctuation of the bayou, and fortify their homes after each storm as they await the next.
Shining a light on Tarell Alvin McCraney
By Julie McCormick
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s star is on the rise, and for good reason. With a master’s in playwriting from Yale, he is an ensemble member at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, a resident playwright at New Dramatists, and at the tender age of 33 won a MacArthur “Genius” Award. His writing celebrates the vulnerability and imperfection of the human condition with an ear for music and an eye for physical poetry. This intuitive grasp of the geography of the human heart has sent him and his plays all over the globe, to theatres like the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court, and the Public Theater. Before rehearsals started in Berkeley, Tarell took some time to speak with Literary Associate Julie McCormick about the journey of Head of Passes and his own voyages as a playwright.
Julie McCormick: How much would you say the piece has changed and grown since its first production at Steppenwolf? What feels different to you now?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I feel like it’s gotten deeper. And it’s easy to say that a lot has changed, though if people saw both productions they would only notice the changes incrementally. But for us, I think the production has gotten deeper and more focused.
Has your thinking about the piece changed at all after having seen it with an audience?
Absolutely. The idea of opening up the dialogue about a person’s personal faith was and is always the main focus of the piece. And then trying to find ways to make sure that visceral conversation was open to everybody in the audience, believers and non.
Do you think that everyone has a relationship with faith?
I think people have a relationship in that everyone either believes in belief or doesn’t. I think there are people who choose to say that they don’t know, but there’s still a sort of relationship with the notion of faith. We’re all trying to make sense of the world we live in. And sometimes, we turn to the word “faith” as the sort of coin, or short answer, for that question. But, everyone has a relationship to trying to figure out the chaos of our world.
You said that part of your initial impetus in creating this piece was examining the nature of faith—can you say a little bit more about where this piece came from for you?
The piece was a commission by Steppenwolf. Tina Landau asked if I was interested in the Book of Job. And I said, generally, yes. But specifically, I don’t know what I’m interested in, I just know that I am interested in it. And then we spent two weeks with a cast just reading the Book of Job out loud and then trying to decipher its makeup. When we walked away from it, my takeaway, again, was that it is a story about someone’s personal faith, and how they use it as an aperture or a guide to try and understand the many, many, sometimes fraught, sometimes beautiful, often chaotic events of our lives. Of human existence. Period. Not just our lives, but other people’s lives.
And what is that struggle? To maintain an ability to not know all the answers, but also to try not to abandon the notion of life. To really stay in it, to figure out what you know, and what you don’t know, and what you never will know. Trying to find some balance in that, I think. We look at people’s lives every day. There’s a woman on TV every other day saying she’s lost her whole family or her home or her child is now fighting for ISIS or they just lost their children because someone thought they were gay, and then earthquakes open up and swallow people’s livelihoods…
There are moments of our lives where these things come out of nowhere, that we absolutely don’t understand and can’t quite find palpable and reasonable answers for. We look at the lives of our friends and think: why does that keep happening to that person? Or, how could all of this rain down on one person’s life? And I don’t have any answers to that. But I thought, and think—this is why we tell stories. I think we all have bouts of confusion and moments of disillusionment, and need to tell these stories to each other in order to find some commonality, some semblance of peace.
Could you say a little bit about the location, Head of Passes? Is that a spot you were familiar with before starting this play?
Yeah, I was familiar with it and became more familiar as I embarked on the project. I remember during Hurricane Katrina, someone said—it was someone from San Francisco—they said, why are those people living there? They know it’s below sea level. Why would they elect to live there?
And I remember the person from New Orleans saying back to the person in San Francisco, you live on a fault line. You live in a place that countless times you been told it’s coming, but still you choose to live there, right? And I don’t live in either of those places, so I’m not on anybody’s side, but I think that question is important when we talk about where we set our hopes and our dreams, where we build our livelihoods. We tend to think that we are putting them in the most secure place that we can, and then of course, the Mississippi shifts, and then our lives shift forever. Irrevocably. And I think that’s an important lesson for all of us. We all think that we’re living in Topeka, Kansas where nothing can kind of go wrong, until a tornado whips around and we land in Oz. It was important for me to set this in a place where there is natural beauty, but also that could shift and disappear at any time.
I think there is a sense of understanding—I’m from Miami, we never underestimate or overestimate the threat of a hurricane. It’s gonna do damage. What damage that is we don’t know, so there’s no need to over-prepare. There are things we cannot control. There are some times the wind will come in. No matter how much you board it up, there are still winds strong enough that can come in and rip your roof apart at the right angle. And you just know and live with that. It was important for me to set this family in a place where they are aware on a larger—I guess the word would be “natural,” level of the way the world can work and wants to work sometimes.
Have you always written for theatre, or have you written in other forms?
Always. Always for theatre.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a playwright, or were you attracted to the form itself?
I was an actor and a performer in the theatre all my life. So I’ve always written and created work for the theatre as I went along. I began to write only, solely, when I became about 24, 25. But up until that time I was also acting and directing.
Why do you think you were drawn so strongly to the theatre?
That’s always been a hard question to answer. I don’t really know. I know that it was an outlet early on, and that I took to it fairly swiftly. Not to say that I was good at it very early on—sometimes I don’t know if I’m good at it still—but, it’s just a process that I engaged with in a way that felt natural.
Where did you first encounter it?
Through school. After-school programs. Church.
Do you think that your experience as an actor and a director influences your writing at all?
Absolutely. I think other writers, a lot of whom I admire, come from a place of poetry and literary focus first. I don’t come from that background; I come from a performative background. If people are looking for long stage directions, for example, they get very upset because I don’t have any.
I think most actors, or at least the ones I’ve encountered, see the work on the page and know what to do next. My hope is that they will feel a collaborative invitation from the piece.
Can you talk about your process of working with director Tina Landau, and how your relationship with her has shaped this play?
Tina and I have now collaborated on about six different projects. And we have probably one of the easiest working relationships I’ve ever encountered. I can’t say the same for her—she’s had other collaborators that she’s worked as easily with—but being this early in my career and to have a partner as facile and focused as Tina is incredible. We speak a very similar language; we come to the theatre in very similar ways although we come from vastly different backgrounds. Greatly to our benefit, I think we both have been open and experimental in trying to figure out what this play wants and needs. And you only can thank God for those kinds of small miracles. Because you can easily try to stay open to the process, and then everyone ends up on different sides of the field. We stayed open to the process and what we were looking for, and then ended up at the very same spot, if not away from each other by two feet. So it’s just been a fantastic way to work and Berkeley’s been so generous in allowing us the time and space to do that.
That sounds like a very special relationship with Tina, and very rare.
I think so. Again, I can’t compare it to anything because I was lucky enough to find it fairly early on, but I find it special.
There is one stage direction in Head of Passes that I wanted to ask you about. It says that the play is set in “the distant present.” What does that mean to you?
Well, rarely do you tell stories from the future. And if you do tell a story about the future, you have to tell it from something that’s already happened. Our consciousness doesn’t exist in the forward; it exists in the now and the telling of the past. So the point of storytelling in the theatre is always going to be from a place of, this story’s already happened. Or it’s happening just now, and it’s present but it’s distant. It’s not exactly today, it’s not exactly right here right now. We’re always in the theatre watching a story being told to us. And it’s just again another invitation to allow that distance to be there, but also for everybody to know that there are actors in the room with you telling you this story. And that’s equally as important as the story.
What’s some of the theatre that you enjoy the most? Who are the companies or playwrights that you find inspiring?
Um, dance. I like dance more than anything. Not to say that I don’t like theatre; I love theatre, I love watching theatre. I love watching great actors. But more than anything, I’m constantly inspired by dance.
Why do you think that is?
It has a vulnerability to it that is easily achieved, that we are always striving for in the talking theatre. And I just find that fascinating.
Do you think you would write for dance at all?
I try to all the time, but it’s a really difficult form to write for.
Are there any companies you particularly like?
Everything. I see a lot. Most recently I saw Kyle Abraham’s piece in LA. I thought that was incredible.
What’s up next for you after this piece? Do you have anything else coming down the pike?
Are you feeling good about that?
I’m very excited about that.
Behind the scenes
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Tina Landau on the creation of Head of Passes.
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney talks about the heart of his play.
Audiences love Head of Passes
Hear what people say about this poignant new play, and see clips of the show!
Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com
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Discover more about geography, faith, and the artists behind Head of Passes, all courtesy of the curators in our literary department.
Geography of the Head of Passes
Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans by Lawrence N. Powell
- This book provides an intriguing history and geography of New Orleans. The author manages to turn fairly scholarly subject matter into an elegant piece of storytelling.
- HBO’s 2010 dramatic television series focuses on the titular neighborhood in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It has received high praise for its accurate portrayal of the culture of New Orleans, in a place and time not too far off from that of Head of Passes.
- This piece about the changing geography of Louisiana was written by a visitor to the state who noticed the swift changes being made to maps of the region. The piece includes pictures, maps, and illustrations that tell a fascinating story in and of themselves.
Head of Passes deals prominently with the theme of faith in the face of tragedy, so we found it appropriate to include a couple of resources that meditate on the nature of faith.
Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists
- This collection contains personal essays by best-selling authors reflecting on the notion of faith. An array of diverse perspectives, the book includes contributions from Anne Perry, Caroline Leavitt, Tamim Ansary, Malachy McCourt, and Pam Houston.
Everything Starts From Prayer: Mother Teresa’s Meditations on Spiritual Life for People of All Faiths
- This short book contains Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa’s words of spiritual guidance and inspiration for people of all faiths.
- In this piece, director Tina Landau and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney talk with Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey about the initial development process for Head of Passes, as well as their previous collaboration and working relationship.
- The Guardian’s 2011 profile of Tarell Alvin McCraney paints a detailed picture of the playwright’s journey to his prominent position in the American theatre scene. Though the piece itself is now four years old and is missing some of his most recent work, it chronicles his personal history and some of his artistic philosophies beautifully.
The Viewpoints Book by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau
- Tina Landau co-wrote this book with Anne Bogart in 2004, and it has swiftly become a theatrical bible for directors, actors, performance artists, and “anyone with a general interest in collaboration and the creative process.” It outlines a technique for creating and discussing art that draws from the postmodern dance world.
A selection of other works by Tarell Alvin McCraney
The Brother/Sister Plays
- McCraney’s trilogy of works known collectively as The Brother/Sister Plays have been produced all around the country. Says the publisher, “Lyrical and mythic, provocative and contemporary, McCraney’s dramas of kinship, love, and heartache are set in the bayou of Louisiana and loosely draw on West African myths.”
- McCraney’s Choir Boy premiered in London in fall of 2012, and off Broadway in spring of 2013. Since then, it has appeared in theatres all around the U.S. Choir Boy, set at an African American prep school for boys, tells a coming-of-age story of the young leader of the gospel choir.
- McCraney’s play Wig Out tells the tale of two rival drag houses competing for the title of “fiercest” at a drag ball during the early rise of HIV/AIDS in the gay/drag scene. It premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2008, and Tina Landau directed its U.S. premiere at the Vineyard Theatre in New York.