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Every once in a while one comes across a performance which may outweigh the play it takes place in. In this case, a good play becomes greater because of one person who takes a playwright’s words and their own and their director’s understandings and makes of them something much more than the sum of those parts. This is Phylicia Rashad in “Head of Passes,” now open at the Mark Taper Forum.
In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s modern spin on trials worthy of Job, a woman’s plans for a quiet conversation with her children about her tenuous future implodes in ways she could never expect, testing her faith in ways that leave her arguing with God in a setting Noah might recognize. If all this sounds terribly religious, that’s not the only way to read the play. Still, the central character’s faith powers her responses, the affect she has had on those around her, and her eventual self-revelations in ways that would not be as palpable otherwise.
Rashad is Shelah, the matriarch of a family which has gathered at her house near the Head of Passes (where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico) to celebrate her birthday, whether she wants a celebration or not. There, on an island in the delta, and with a storm lashing at the house, she had hoped instead to quiety discuss her assets with her children before her obvious illness takes over. Those who populate her world – a neighbor, a doctor, a helper and his son, and her own children – gather, fight, fuss over the house’s increasingly decrepit condition, anything but have that discussion. As the storm worsens, so do the revelations. And that is just the start.
As Shelah, Rashad creates that recognizable form of devout woman, talking to, appealing to, and venting anger at the God she has trusted to uphold her over a long life. When, in the end, she must confront her own failings and what they have wrought, the play becomes both riveting and gut wrenching. It’s a truly tour-de-force performance.
In this she is aided by a solidly ensemble cast. Francois Battiste gives the successful son, Aubrey, the kind of confidence of carriage to match a character quick to judgement, whether it be about his mother’s future or his sister’s past. J. Bernard Calloway, by contrast, plays Spencer, the elder but less successful son as a man who, despite bluster, is used to falling short, despite his physical capabilities.
Jacqueline Williams gives Shelah’s contemporary and neighbor the observer’s voice, trying to assess Shelah’s house of cards even as it falls, while – in a brief but deeply important moment – Alana Arenas, as the daughter, delivers a portait of pain and a reality check on her mother’s dreams whichc fuels all that follows. John Earl Jelks makes Shelah’s helper a man of considerable wit but little tact, while Kyle Beltran offers up youthful anger and observation as his son. James Carpenter rounds out the cast as the doctor, whose casual moments of white privilege bring both laughter and sadness.
Director Tina Landau truly gets these characters, and makes the nearly poetic language of McCraney’s script, and the amazing special effects of G.W. Mercier’s remarkable set, seem like normal life and conversation. The tensions never let up, and the symbolism, including the symbolic physicality of it all, is its own work of art.
Still, in the end, what makes all of this something one simply must see is the performance of Rashad, whose final, extensive monologue will stick with you, regardless of what or if you believe in regards to a higher power. There is much to chew over, followed by a step back to look at all the richness of idea and symbol the play has surrounded that powerful moment with.
What: “Head of Passes” When: through October 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
It has long been a rule of the theater that social change or tension is best examined in intimate situations. That, for all its prodigious humor, is the aim of Paul Oakley Stovall’s new play “Immediate Family,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. The play offers up an awkward reunion in a family full of secrets and unspoken tensions as a way to look at how the restructuring of the very concept of family creates its own issues in modern America.
The play covers so many issues at the same time that may be its only major flaw: one shuffles from tension to tension, meaning that some get shorter shrift than perhaps they should. Indeed, the playwright’s intent appears to be the conversations one will have afterward with others in attendance. Still, busy though it may be in content, the production itself proves so well conceived the audience leaves satisfied, as the characters prove likable, the comedy is genuine and the message surprisingly heartwarming.
The story takes place in the Hyde Park home in Chicago which Evy Bryant Jerome has inherited from her parents, a powerful African-American preacher father, Jessie, and his always-supportive wife. Indeed, their portrait hangs in the living room, surveying their progeny’s actions with implied expectation and judgement. Now Evy’s brother Tony is getting married, and the widely dispersed clan is gathering: half-sister Ronnie from her home in Europe, and Evy’s favorite brother Jesse, Jr. from New York. For Evy, this is her entire immediate family, but for Jessie, Jr. family extends beyond blood to the silly-tough neighbor girl he grew up with, Nina, and Jesse’s same-sex partner Kristian – whose arrival brings much to the surface.
The conversations this gathering inspires create the play, ranging from issues of orientation, race, class, to what makes a family a family. Evy’s determinedly cultured and almost desperately even approach plays against Nina’s brashness and unabashedly trashy humor. Kristian being a white Swede brings its own disquiets. Even the circumstances of Ronnie’s family connection create issues relating to the noble father’s potential feet of clay. The result is fast-paced, often very funny, sometimes equally wrenching, and a bit like encountering a rubber ball in a small box – bouncing around from surface to surface without ever landing anywhere for long.
The virtual choreography which keeps this from becoming a series of static conversations is beautifully designed by director Phylicia Rashad. Her sense of place and people connects these diverse characters and, with the aid of John Iacovelli’s evocative set, allows them large and small conversations and the intimacies of life in separate but unified spaces. And the performances are uniformly individual and strong.
Shanesia Davis’ upright Evy vibrates with the rigid strength of her upbringing – a sort of seething righteousness – even as it isolates her from the rest of the characters’ innate informality. Kamal Angelo Bolden’s casually happy Tony makes great counterpoint to Davis’ character, and that balance becomes essential. Bryan Terrell Clark gives Jesse a solidly non-stereotypical carriage and a certain playfulness which offsets the serious divisions this character sparks. Cynda Williams provides an egalitarian sense of civilization as Ronnie, the outsider-insider.
The two actual outsiders (at least from a certain perspective) are also the most unlike. Yet, both are catalysts for the necessary explosions which redefine the Bryants themselves. As Nina, the earthy lesbian from next door, J. Nicole Brooks gives a physicality to underlying sexual tensions with a gleeful abandon – an in-your-face counterpoint to the general gentility of the Bryant family. As Kristian, Jesse’s Swedish boyfriend, Mark Jude Sullivan starts out with an almost comical accent, but soon settles into a gentle but confident person determined to not be overlooked.
“Immediate Family” has a charming intimacy, even as it seems to cover a lot of ground rather quickly: religion, mendacity, acceptance, the importance of race, the shadow of a patriarch, all appear in sometimes rapid succession. And yet there are also moments of gentle depth, as the Bryants come gradually to terms with who they are, and how they relate to one-another. And there is laughter – almost constant, healthy laughter over people’s behaviors we cannot help but recognize.
In short, the play is very human. Performed without an intermission it will leave you wanting, truly wishing for, more. Still, what it has to say is apt, and with laughter it manages to get many points
across which might otherwise sink in more slowly. It is certainly worth a look.
What: “Immediate Family” When: through June 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Satudays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org