Theater & Dance
"Head of Passes"

By: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Produced by: Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Featuring: 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), and Michael A. Shepperd (Creaker)
Directed by: Tina Landau
Creative team: Scenic design by G.W. Skip Mercier, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting by Scott Zielinski, and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Running time: 130 minutes, one intermission
When: April 10–May 24, 2015
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, California
Tickets: $29-$79 (subject to change; discounts available). Call 510-647–2949 or visit

Bruce, Battiste / Berkeley Rep
Cheryl Lynn Bruce as Shelah, left, and Francois Battiste as Aubrey in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s "Head of Passes," playing April 10–May 24, 2015 at Berkeley Rep.
The storm in nature,
the storm in the family
Berkeley Rep stages powerful production
of excellent play by Tarell Alvin McCraney
April 25, 2015

Head of Passes is a real place. It's at the southernmost tip of Louisiana, 75 miles south of New Orleans. Three passages of the Mississippi River join the Gulf of Mexico there, creating wetlands, where only 10 percent of the land is dense enough to be used by humans. The rest is sand, silt and clay that constantly shifts with the movement of the water.

Amazingly, there are some people that call this changeable, swampy coast home.

In Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, "Head of Passes," Shelah’s family has gathered on a stormy night for her birthday, but the party never really gets started. All she wants is to have her whole family together, at home, like when they were children, one last time.

Cheryl Lynn Bruce gives a poignant performance as the classic matriarch. Shelah is strong-willed, strictly religious, very loving and wise. She is happy to see her girlfriend Mae, (Kimberly Scott), her sons, Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (Bryan Tyree Henry), and especially her stepdaughter Cookie (Nikkole Salter).

Like at most parties, there is an unwelcome guest. Shelah is not pleased to see Dr. Anderson (James Carpenter) enter her living room. Aubrey invited him, and he wanted to be there to support Shelah when she told the family about her health.

The other party crasher is Mother Nature.

Elaborate stage and visual effects give Mother Nature a lead role in the play. Rain is seen coming down outside the living room windows, at the back of the stage, and inside, via living room ceiling.

As guests arrive, they are greeted with a shower as they pass through the living room. Creaker (Michael Sheppard) and his son, Crier (Jonathan Burke) scramble from the kitchen to the living room and back several times with buckets, pots and mops to control the leak in the living room ceiling. Aubrey complains about the condition of the house and asks his mother to come live closer to him. Shelah scolds Spencer for paying for shoddy repairs. And, when Cookie finally arrives, Shelah personally helps her dry off, lovingly patting her with a towel and hugging her at the same time. But, Cookie didn’t bring the boys, and she can’t stay. In fact, her friend is outside, in the car, waiting for her.

— Advertising —

Mother Nature becomes captivating, and we pay attention when the rain stops and starts again.

Each time The Angel (Sullivan Jones) entered, the rain would stop and the patio lights would dim or blink. Only Shelah interacts with The Angel, as her coughing fits worsen throughout the party. She did her best to stay calm and quiet the coughs, but it becomes obvious something is wrong.

When Aubrey discovers some things missing from Shelah’s bedroom, he and Spencer decide to go find Cookie. Shelah begged them not to go out into the storm, but she was too weak to argue.

Everyone leaves, the party is over, and The Angel returns. Mother Nature takes over and brings the house down. Big winds blow and hiss through the stage, while pots and pans tumble through the living room, the patio slopes down to the right, the lights blink and shake, and a huge soggy beam falls into the middle of the living room. Shelah and The Angel stand on the patio, slowly raising their gaze and hands upward, as if reaching for God, then calmly lay down on the floor, and close their eyes, resting in peace.

Stormy waters are calm the next morning. The Angel is gone and Shelah is awakened by Creaker and Crier. Mae and Dr. Anderson enter a few moments later. The news that they bring makes Shelah wish she had died over night. She demands that they all leave her alone in her grief and loss. She goes into a rage, throwing papers, flailing her arms, spinning, pulling off her wig and stripping down to her slip and crucifix.

This is the brilliant moment where Cheryl Lynn Bruce provokes an emotional monologue as Shelah questions herself and God. All the regrets of her family history are exposed as she stands at the edge of the water.

The play reminds us that tragedy is a part of life. To view that cycle up close, to witness a life of great reduction and redemption, visually and emotionally, "Head of Passes is a mustsee.

Email Petra Brady at

Bruce, Salter / Berkeley Rep
Cheryl Lynn Bruce as Shelah, left, and Nikkole Salter as Cookie in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s "Head of Passes," playing April 10–May 24, 2015 at Berkeley Rep.
Bruce,Jones / Berkeley Rep
Cheryl Lynn Bruce as Shelah, left, and Sullivan Jones as The Angel in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s "Head of Passes," playing April 10–May 24, 2015 at Berkeley Rep.