“Why do bad things happen to good people?” It was a question I’ve always asked myself when I read or heard about terrible things on the news. I never quite got the answer I wanted, but I remember being told from an early age it’s all in “God’s hands” and so, I stopped questioning it. Tarell Alvin McCraney brings this question back into the center of our minds with his powerful, emotional piece Head Of Passes. Head of Passes, which gets its name from the part of the Mississippi River that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico, is a piece inspired by the book of Job from the Bible.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a faithful servant of God whose faith is continuously tested when terrible occurrences keep happening to him without warning or explanation. McCraney’s play isn’t a direct copycat of the biblical story, but the elements and message of the story are clear. In his piece “Job” is now Selah (played brilliantly by the remarkable Phylicia Rashad), a widowed mother of three whose children join together to throw her an elaborate birthday party, a party she never wanted in the first place.
The dialogue and family scenes of the first act are so vivid and important, it’s clear McCraney took his time crafting his piece. There were no awkward, unnecessary phrases or lines, every word that left the characters mouths added to the story. The characters spoke with urgency, with purpose like they were running out of time. Perhaps that was purposeful, since the idea of “running out of time” was a reoccurring theme. As we see Selah coughing up blood, we can only assume that she doesn’t have much of it and is trying to make peace with those she loves most.
She attempts to heal the broken relationship between Creaker (John Earl Jelks) and Crier (Kyle Beltran), a father/son duo that work for her. She forgives her dear, old friend Mae ( Arnetia Walker) of any debts, she advises her sons Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (J. Bernard Calloway) to do their best, and she tries to help her late husband’s illegitimate daughter Cookie (Alana Arenas) whom she loves like her own. She’s like the spokeswoman for being a good Samaritan, she is almost too good to be true. It’s such a shame, that instead of the audience mourning for her death, she becomes the mourner and I don’t know which is worse.
In the second act the tone of the play is much more somber than the first, I’d almost call it haunting. The end of act one concludes with a storm that ruins Selah’s house, both literally and figuratively. The scenic design of the destruction and all that comes after is mind-blowing, probably the best scenic work I’ve seen done in years. What Rashad and McCraney have done with the second act is absolutely astonishing. In that act alone Ms. Rashad takes us on an emotional whirlwind, something that couldn’t happen if the writing wasn’t as strong as it was. As Selah is hit with bombshell after bombshell her sanity, her faith is slipping from under her. She is sinking, literally (as her house becomes more and more flooded) and figuratively (as the news of her children deaths break her down). In this moment Selah is confused, hurt, and seeking answers. She’s trying to hold on to the faith that she’s kept for so long but is obviously grieving for the children she’s lost. Rashad is able to capture Selah’s confusion and misery in one look, and in the next she’s optimistic, then in the next moment she’s exhausted. One can only imagine the emotions a monologue such as this requires, but Rashad is more than capable of taking on that task.
Theatre is one of those spaces that shouldn’t be limited, it should be free. It should open up dialogue about just about any and everything, from politics to theological ideologies and it’s pieces like Head Of Passes that give me hope for the future of theatre. Not only can it serve as a place of escapism and entertainment, it’s a source that can make us dig deeper into ourselves, question the world we live in, and seek out ways to be able to make a difference.
I’d say The Public Theater has yet another hit on its hands and if this show doesn’t transfer to Broadway, I will be the first to be surprised.
Head of Passes is currently running at The Public Theater until April 24th tickets can be purchased here.
Top 5 Works To See at Under The Radar Festival!
Over the last 15 years, The Public Theater’s UNDER THE RADAR FESTIVAL has presented over 229 companies from 42 countries. This festival is an outlet that allows new works the opportunity to catch their breath and breathe. The Public’s mission for providing a high-visibility platform to support artists from diverse backgrounds who are redefining the act of making theater is what this festival is all about.
There is a lot to see but listed here are the top 5 to get you started. Be sure to click on the dates and times above each trailer for all of the details including location, ticket prices, detailed show dates and starting times.
The Illustrious Blacks have arrived to save the world one beat at a time! Once upon a time in a galaxy not far away, there lived two kings. Each was the ruler of his own deliciously glorious planet. The first king, Manchildblack, was well known throughout the cosmos for his ethereal vocals, celestial sonics, and earthy musical messages. The other king, Monstah Black, was a star in the solar system for his gravity-defying performances, gender-bending fashions, and spacey disposition. One magical night, an inexplicable ultra-magnetic pull forced the two planets to collide. A technicolored explosion occurred, turning night into day, with a feast of aural and visual delights. It was then that the universe was changed forever. Manchildblack and Monstah Black united and became The Illustrious Blacks!
2. HEAR WORD! NAIJA WOMAN TALK TRUE
Inspired by multi-generational stories of inequality and transformation. Staged by director and writer Ifeoma Fafunwa, the show grapples with the issues affecting the lives of women across Nigeria, and the factors that limit their potential for independence, leadership, and meaningful contribution in society. Combining song and dance with intimate portraits of resilience and resistance, the show celebrates women who have broken the culture of silence, challenged the status quo, and moved beyond barriers to achieving solutions.
Featuring a cast of leading Nigerian actresses (Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Joke Silva, Elvina Ibru, Omonor, Ufuoma McDermott, Zara Udofia-Ejoh, Rita Edward, Debbie Ohiri, Odenike, and Oluchi Odii) as well as percussionists Emeka Anokwuru and Blessing Idireri.
3. INK: A Piece For Museums
INK is an art lecture, live personal essay, and electronic music concert all in one. With stunning visuals by media designer Shawn Duan, musician-storyteller duo James Harrison Monaco and Jerome Ellis perform a lush live score as they lovingly analyze works from around the world, exploring the traditional art lecture into a unique theatrical experience—one that’s at once playful, intellectual, and spiritual. Together, they guide us through a meditation on calligraphy and illuminated manuscripts, on music and silence, and on Jerome’s intimate relationship to the spoken and written word, in this first-ever collaboration between Under the Radar and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Now, the last two works are part of INCOMING! A festival within a festival. Rapid Response. Controlled Chaos. New Work.
Incoming! features works-in-process from The Public Theater’s Devised Theater Working Group. The DTWG is an artist resource program, offering workshops in critical and professional skills-building, as well as opportunities for creative collaboration. Reciprocally, this Working Group also advises for the Devised Theater Initiative, helping to shape a more inclusive and equitable field.
4. MACBETH IN STRIDE
Whitney White‘s live concert and theatrical event excavate the underbelly of female ambition. With throbbing orchestrations of vintage rock, White traces the fatalistic arc of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth while exorcizing demons of her own. One in a five-part series on Shakespeare’s women, this concert play is a battle cry for black female power and desire.
Sean Dononvan‘s new work is the reconstruction of a memory—the story of a queer couple who move from Brooklyn to a cabin in upstate New York, and of the violence that befalls them. Through monologue, film, dance, and music by Heather Christian, CABIN surveys the lines between myth and memoir, the complexity of intimacy, and the magnitude of loss.
We Were There: Experience Deja Vu With Groundhog Day
What if you had to relive the same day over and over and over AND over again? Would you try something new every time to get a different outcome? Would you drive yourself crazy trying to figure out how to stop it? Now a two-time Olivier Award-winning new musical, Groundhog Day takes us on a whirlwind of adventure and misery through the eyes of a jaded weatherman forced to relive the same day, every day.
Funny enough, Groundhog Day is actually based on a film with the same title, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, and co-written by the show’s book writer Danny Rubin, about a weatherman caught in time and forced to relive the same day over and over and over again.
The concept seemingly feels like dangerous ground for a musical or a play, for that matter, as it forces the audience to watch the same moments over and over AND over again. Yet, somehow Groundhog Day manages to make what could be dangerous territory and turn it into a brilliant masterpiece of a musical. Largely in part to the catchy, fun music of the brilliant Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day makes deja vu seem kinda… cool.
Like the 1993 film, we meet our snarky protagonist Phil Connors (Andy Karl), a weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual prediction of spring, as predicted by “Phil the Groundhog.” Naturally, Phil feels nothing but disdain for the ritual, Punxsutawney, and everyone who celebrates it, including his producer Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss), who he tries to woo while acting like a complete prick to her.
As the Groundhog Day version of Ebenezer Scrooge, Connors needs to deal with the consequences of his terrible, often hilarious, actions. Cue the deja vu, where he must relive the same day over and over.
While he initially spends his days in self-loathing, also encountering a massive groundhog mascot that hilariously hits him on the head as he passes by every day (and he totally deserves it too), he eventually comes to his senses and looks to turning over a new leaf as he tries to win Rita over.
But not before indulging in his share of booze, women, and crime. Repeatedly, of course.
Karl’s charm really comes to play here, as we can easily grow to hate Phil Connors. After all, he’s literally the worst. Yet somehow, watching him suffer this forever purgatory, you can’t help but both root for his liberation and also hope he’s stuck there for all eternity. Karl’s performance in the West End run of the show earned him an Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical last week.
It helps that Broadway newcomer Barrett Doss is an excellent match for Karl, their chemistry undeniable, like her talent. The role (and some of the songs) hint that she’s more than the boring, hard-working producer that we’re led to believe (largely in part to her interactions with Connors), but, underneath the surface, a quirkier soul searching for love. Doss plays that side of Rita with enormous heart and playful charm and wit.
The show also offers a few solos of other Punxsutawney citizens, who express their own joys, worries, and troubles of life in the small town.
Minchin, director Matthew Warchus, Rob Howell (set design), Hugh Vanstone (light design), Paul Kieve (illusions), and Peter Darling (choreography) prove that when the creative team shares the same vision, magic can happen, as evident in the first act’s amazing car-chase number with Phil, two idiot bar patrons, and the Punxsutawney police — one of the most fun sequences I’ve seen on Broadway since … everything in Matilda, which featured the same creative team behind this musical.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Groundhog Day, and, honestly, wouldn’t mind being stuck in a suburban purgatory with Phil and company again… and again.
Groundhog Day plays at the August Wilson Theatre.