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Tarell of All Trades

The playwright and actor is making waves with his latest theatrical masterwork, Head of Passes

Starring Tony-winning actress Phylicia Rashad (of Cosby Show fame), Head of Passes, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s devastating and illuminating new play, officially opens this week at New York’s Public Theater. The plot builds on the Book of Job, from the Old Testament, in which God tests the faith of his most pious adherent through a series of catastrophic events, ultimately addressing the age-old and universal question: “Why do the righteous suffer?”

McCraney, a MacArthur “Genius” award winner, is familiar with the Bible, having grown up in a religious household, and was first approached about adapting the theological text by the play’s eventual director, Tina Landau, and Martha Lavey, artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, where he’s also an ensemble member. Having struggled with his own belief at points, McCraney, 35, was eager to dive headlong into the text, reinterpreting it in an artful manner that would also touch on issues of race, class, substance and sexual abuse, and family. 

“You start seeing your reflection in different ways—how you’ve grown and how you’ve not,” he says of writing the first draft. “My own faith was maturating at the time: less about the imaginative happiness or ecstasy that religion can be, but what it means to actually hold onto the idea that something is larger than you and may not answer all of the questions when you want it to—or ever.” 

Head of Passes tells the story of a widowed matriarch, Shelah (Rashad), on the eve of her birthday, as she struggles to share some painful news with her two determined though dissimilar sons, Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway), her troubled adopted daughter, Cookie—a character played brilliantly by Alana Arenas, whom McCraney’s known since childhood—and her old friend, Mae (Arnetia Walker). The other focal figures include Shelah’s oft-cringe-inducing white doctor (Robert Joy), and acquaintances Creaker (John Earl Jelks) and his son, Crier (Kyle Beltran).

The play’s title and setting come from the Louisiana wetlands where the three main branches of the Mississippi River flow into the Gulf of Mexico. An inhospitable network of brackish swamps, colliding currents and shifting soil, the Head of Passes loses an estimated football field-size landmass into the Gulf daily, a devastating rate of erosion that continues to accelerate. 

McCraney, a Miami native, first became familiar with the region about 10 years ago, while researching a play he was writing about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, called The Breach. Driving southeast out of New Orleans, he was struck by a sense of connectedness to the otherworldly landscape. “You don’t know where anything begins or ends anymore; it’s just so liminal,” he says, looking back. “I had never been in a place that felt so natural to me. You’ve been to forests and seen sequoias—big trees and canyons—but there’s something about this earth and water meeting that felt like I belonged there.” 

It was important, “to place it somewhere that is naturally on a fault line, that is literally slipping away as we speak,” McCraney, who had just finished making final revisions to the script, two days before its official debut, explains. “How do you hold onto faith in a place where you can’t even count on the ground being there?” 

A graduate of DePaul University and the Yale School of Drama, he’s looking forward to returning home to Florida, where he’s a professor of theater and civic engagement at the University of Miami, after the opening-night performance. He’s also deeply involved with a local community program that exposes high school students, namely young African American women, to theater. He’s also already dedicating time to other writing projects.

Asked what fuels his passion for creating such intricate narratives and distinctive characters for the stage, McCraney pauses. “This life is very meticulous and particular,” he says. “And the more particular we can get telling one person’s story, we illuminate so many of our own.”