Playwright McCraney questions faith, place in “Head of Passes”

From "Head of Passes"

Since he was 5 years old, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has been acting, attending magnet arts programs in middle school and then going to a performing arts high school. For him, theater is about trying to figure out the large questions that no one really has answers to, and learning to empathize with people.

At 13, McCraney got his first job, working with a peer education theater group. He started writing, producing many of the pieces the group performed at juvenile detention centers and halfway houses.

Now McCraney, a MacArthur Genius Award recipient whose lauded triptych, “The Brother/Sister Plays,” were performed at the Magic Theatre, Marin Theatre Company, and the American Conservatory Theater, several years ago, makes his debut at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre with “Head of Passes.” It's the story of a woman living at the mouth of the Mississippi River Delta who struggles to maintain her faith while her home and life fall apart. McCraney says he picked this spot specifically.

[jump] “It’s a place we thought was beautiful and liminal,” he said. “It’s still changing and not necessarily built on a bedrock.”

The work premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and McCraney says he’s glad to have the West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep and work with the artistic director, Tony Taccone.

“It’s such a refreshing company, so open and alive, and I find Tony particularly confident looking at the work and doing whatever is necessary for the work,” he said. “It’s exciting because he has a laserlike focus on the work and what needs to come forward.”

This has translated to getting to pay attention to “Head of Passes” the way he wanted to, McCraney says.

“Normally you don’t with the second production –it’s just cut these lines and move that around,” he said. “I was fairly transparent that I wanted to explore the question of faith more deeply, and Tony understood that.”

Tina Landau, who directed the play in Chicago, is also directing it for Berkeley Rep. McCraney says she both pushes and teaches him.

“She’s infinitely generous and very specific with a keen eye,” he said. “She’s a visual genius with a unique and exact way of looking at the theater. That’s who you want to be in the room with you.”

When creating his plays, McCraney says he thinks back to his time as a teenager in Miami, when he knew the people in the audience and knew he would see them again. The idea was to create a communal experience rather than a spectacle he says. That’s why he characters often speak directly to the audience and try and engage them.

“It’s inviting a kind of openness or awareness that we are not distant from them,” he said. “It’s a back and forth with a story we have to tell you and they can lean forward and listen rather than sit back.”

“Head of Passes” begins previews on April 10 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. It plays through May 24. Tickets are $29-79. For more information, call 510 647–2949 or go to the website.

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