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Head of Passes

From 28 critic and 69 member reviews
Members say: Great acting, Great staging, Absorbing, Intense, Thought-provoking

About the show

The Public Theater presents the New York premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney's new drama about family and faith, trials and tribulations, starring Tony winner Phylicia Rashad. More…

At the mouth of the Mississippi River, Shelah’s family and friends have come to celebrate her birthday and save her from a leaking roof. But in this contemporary parable inspired by the Book of Job, unexpected events turn the reunion into the ultimate test of faith and love. As her world seems to collapse around her, Shelah (Phylicia Rashad) must fight to survive the rising flood of life’s greatest challenges.

Epoch Times

"The work is tremendously complex…The play’s final, very long monologue gives Phylicia Rashad, alone on stage, the opportunity to display a power and breadth of emotion not often found in American writing. Rashad makes the most of this opportunity and executes a tour-de-force performance. Director Tina Landau rises to the occasion in conveying the play’s depth and importance." Full Review

NY Theatre Guide

"McCraney's words and Rashad's performance became something magical right in front of me. When author and actor are at the top of their games, this can happen...It was a privilege to be in the audience to see it, and I can think of few theatrical performances I have experienced that can rival it...If there is any justice in this world, 'Head of Passes' will be moving uptown following the same path taken by 'Hamilton' and 'Eclipsed' when they made the move to Broadway." Full Review


"In the second act, Rashad dominates the stage with a tour-de-force of raw, unfettered emotion…Rashad's performance is the centerpiece here, but it is surrounded by a collection of excellent performers who capture fully their rich, complex characters…It is a play by a young and brilliant dramatist in the prime of his career featuring work by a virtuoso actress whose powers are on full display." Full Review

Stage Buddy

"Rashad takes over the stage with such subtle power that it might even take a while before we become aware of the beauty of her technique...It’s an act of theatrical bravura that redefines the concept of 'force of nature.' Directed with by Tina Landau, and featuring astonishing scenic design by G.W. Mercier, 'Head of Passes,' haunts because of how it subverts tropes we thought we knew well." Full Review

Reviewing The Drama

"Truly, it's a riveting performance from Ms. Rashad...Rashad's performance is like nothing you've seen before. She grabs hold of the material—and you—and doesn't let go until she's had her say, the water has flooded in (literally; fantastic scenic design by G.W. Mercier), and she feels she has reached... I don't know. A resolution? A new day? Maybe just some sort of stasis? Whatever it is, it will blow you away." Full Review

The New York Times

"Ms. Rashad will be hard pressed to ever again top her work here…The script could still use some fine-tuning to make the sucker punch of the second act land with maximum clout. But even as the play stands, you’ll look back and marvel at how Mr. McCraney and this expert production team have set you up. That’s partly the art of Ms. Landau and her top-drawer cast…Ultimately, it’s Ms. Rashad’s deeply felt, expertly shaded Shelah that gives the play its essential emotional continuity." Full Review


"The roiling family tragedy is dominated by Rashad’s kaleidoscopic portrayal of this righteous, dying woman and her struggle with a cruel God…'Head of Passes,' knowingly directed by Tina Landau, seems to be a naturalistic, almost a straightforward family story…Then the rains come down, and worse, which leave Shelah with a mighty mad scene and a monologue of staggering intensity. The playwright gets closer to the dialogue-rich style of his mentor August Wilson." Full Review

Village Voice

"McCraney's potent, poetic 'Head of Passes' — expertly directed by Tina Landau — is domestic drama in an apocalyptic key, and this cloudburst is a harbinger of deluges to come…This heightened tenor elevates his new play beyond domestic fare. One familial secret would make this an all too familiar affair, but McCraney's cataclysms keep expanding. In so doing, 'Head of Passes' issues a warning: Tend to those foundations, or face the inevitable cracks." Full Review

Show Showdown

"The play itself still occasionally misses the mark: some of the characters are not as developed as they might be, and a few of the plot points introduced early on don't gain much steam. But even if the show were perfect, there's really no way to prepare for the absolutely thrilling ass-whooping Phylicia Rashad gives the audience late in the second act...Hers is one of the finest--and possibly most exhausting--performances taking place nightly on a New York stage right now." Full Review

Time Out New York

"Tina Landau’s production is beautifully assembled; McCraney’s rich, flavorful dialogue rushes out compellingly from the persuasive cast of eight, and snags just when it should. McCraney is a huge talent, and the play is certainly worth seeing. But the realistic family-reunion half has only a tenuous connection with the outrageous misfortunes later on. Shelah may be Job, but 'Head of Passes' offers no God to explain her calamaties. She’s wrestling with her playwright." Full Review

Reflections in the Light

"Taut direction by Tina Landau keeps our attention focused...Phylicia Rashad is at the top of her game, turning in the most powerful performance I have seen her give...Tarell Alvin McCraney's script is compelling and more engaging than his 'Brother/Sister Plays'...The tale is kind of a bummer...The play probably would be better trimmed a bit and presented as a one act instead of breaking two hours with an intermission." Full Review

New York Daily News

"An affecting but uneven saga…McCraney’s dialogue is a potent blend of the plainspoken and poetic...The cast and production, especially the shape-shifting set, impress under direction by Tina Landau. But on the downside, 'Head of Passes' doesn’t sidestep cliches. It can also come across as overwrought and windy. Still, Rashad’s gutsy, go-for-it performance is something to believe in." Full Review

Edge New York

"The play falls into the type of psychodrama that befalls a lot of plays with religious overtones, and at times, even heads towards Tyler Perry territory with some of the reveals in the second act. Oddly enough, this is where this oddly uneven play is quickened...The fathoms in which Rashad goes through in coloring the complexity of this put-upon elderly woman is the stuff of magic...It is this high-spirited performance that rescues an otherwise wayward play." Full Review

Theater Pizzazz

"‘Head of Passes’ an occasionally potent but structurally awkward play...Its principal value lies in watching Phylicia Rashad demonstrate the alchemical power of a great actress turning dramatic dross into theatrical gold. Almost as memorable is G.W. Mercier’s remarkable set...It begins as a realistic family dramedy and then magical realism for Shelah’s seven-page diatribe directed at God, which sounds like faux-Euripides and makes the play as lopsided as its act two set." Full Review

DC Theatre Scene

"A well-acted, richly atmospheric production...But the audience’s faith is also tested, in several ways…The ending of ‘Head of Passes’ turns into a long monologue, Shelah’s conversation with God, a challenge for any actress – and, frankly, for any audience. Phylicia Rashad is up to the challenge…Those struggling with their own religious faith might get the most out of the ending…But others will miss the embracing, engaging crowd of characters from Act I." Full Review


"In creating the role of Shelah, he has put on stage a magnificent role for an actress of tremendous gifts. Phylicia Rashad rises to Greek tragic heights required by Shelah’s plight. However, the meaning and message of the play remain obscure, which tends to leave the audience outside of the play’s dramatic action. We watch mesmerized in horror as events unfold, but why they are happening and what is the underlying cause remains a mystery." Full Review


"Hardly a problem free play. The final monologue goes on way too long though it's certainly a triumph for Phylicia Rashad. But impressive as Rashad is, her character's most extreme suffering comes off as somewhat rushed...The way she's pushed into the Job persona comes at the expense of a more sympathy arousing portrait of a mother facing unimaginable grief. Still, there's no faulting Mr. McCraney's talent, imagination and courage to explore new forms — or the very fine production." Full Review

Talkin' Broadway

"Rashad's immersion within Shelah is riveting, and the rage she wields while waging that battle profoundly chilling in its unvarnished honesty…Her tirade is explosive, harrowing, and cathartic, as only the best theatre can be. Alas, it's only a part of 'Head of Passes,' which otherwise fails to match these stunning heights...Shelah is the sole developed character…But with Rashad at the center of 'Head of Passes,' that part of this unsteady evening is never less than a joy." Full Review

American Theater Web

"It’s the bifurcation of the piece that makes the production both intriguing and unsatisfying. Despite solid direction from Tina Landau, a superlative physical production, and fine performances, the two halves of 'Passes' never completely feel as if they belong together. Such complaints, however, can be put aside for one reason alone: Rashad’s bravura performance...Rashad’s exquisite performance makes 'Head of Passses' unquestionably compelling." Full Review


"Landau does her best to fill out McCraney's sketch by crafting believable relationships between the actors…Rashad serves as a life raft, rescuing the central story…Landau orchestrates some truly remarkable stagecraft…Unfortunately, the realistic water-filled craters onstage aren't quite enough to distract from the massive holes in McCraney's story. 'Head of Passes' has the potential to be the next great American play, but the author needs to shore up the basics first." Full Review

New York Magazine / Vulture

"A startling but awkward new take on Job…Most of the first act passes busily, and often amusingly…The play becomes more and more abstract...McCraney’s flights of poetry are so fluently rendered by Rashad they seem like plainest prose…Unfortunately, this lyricism does not sit very well with a jokey spikiness...Each mode seems to undermine, not deepen, the other...In trying to humanize the great and mysterious parable, McCraney has set himself a challenge surely no playwright could meet." Full Review

Bob's Theater Blog

"The first act is a sometimes uneven mix of comedy and drama that ends with a bang...Rashad is superb but her full-throttle performance was not enough to distract me from the play’s weaknesses...Tina Landau directs with a feeling for the material. I give McCraney credit for trying something different with each play, but I found the current play overwrought, muddled and disjointed. The audience was very enthusiastic." Full Review

The Hollywood Reporter

"The play is unwieldy, its epic, elemental developments springing inorganically from the psychological realism of the setup...However, McCraney's distinctive dialogue ensures that the drama remains absorbing, and Landau directs the strong cast with a keen ear for the musical rhythms of black Louisiana speech...Rashad supplies earthy gravitas throughout...Every character is vividly drawn...It's the flaws of the play, not the performances, that diminish its impact." Full Review

Front Row Center

"Act one is a fairly standard kitchen sink drama...There’s a lot of buzz, chatter and exposition about who everyone is, and some fine comic moments. But it’s all a distraction from the family and what they feel...Most of the second act is a powerful, tour-de-force monologue by Shelah. It’s unfair that we aren’t weeping at the end of it, but that’s not her fault. Ms. Rashad has laid it all out and left it on the stage. Unfortunately, the play hasn’t set us up to care enough to cry." Full Review

The Wrap

"From the very beginning of the play, McCraney prepares us for a big moment with Cookie; his writing, Rashad, and Arenas fully deliver on that promise. Too often, however, McCraney is less effective at preparing us for these big confrontations…Unfortunately, this playwright’s flair for comedy deserts him...This isn’t tragedy. This is creaky melodrama of the David Belasco variety, and Tina Landau’s direction and G.W. Mercier’s scenic design push it into that unfortunate arena." Full Review

Delightful, Entertaining, Exquisite

See it if Phylicia Rashad was amazing. Along with the rest of the cast. Faith is a powerful thing.

Don't see it if You must see it.

Absorbing, Great staging, Exquisite, Great acting, Brilliantly written

See it if You love great theatre, gut-wrenching drama, superb acting and a brilliant story-line

Don't see it if You hate all of the above

Clever, Funny, Great acting, Great writing, Great staging

See it if You love religious or spiritual themes. If you want to be kept on the edge of your seat in suspense. Phylicia Rashad is brilliant!

Don't see it if If you don't want to be in tears in the 2nd Act

Thought-provoking, Profound, Resonant, Riveting, Masterful

See it if you want to be mesmerized by Rashad. The story was interesting, cast was good, there was lots of humor, and, at the end, Rashad blew me away

Don't see it if you would rather be watching reality television.

Absorbing, Great acting, Great staging, Intense, Thought-provoking

See it if You like real life family situation dramas that are exquisitely well-written and perfectly cast.

Don't see it if You have no feelings for others and live in a box or cave.

Great acting, Great writing, Must see, Resonant, Profound

See it if You appreciate deep character work

Don't see it if You don't like uncomfortable topics

Great staging, Masterful, Intense, Thought-provoking, Must see

See it if You like meaningful and thought provoking productions that can be felt with the heart. Phylicia Rashad gives a performance of a lifetime!

Don't see it if No second thoughts - go see it!

Absorbing, Great acting, Great staging, Masterful, Riveting

See it if You admire incredible acting. Phylicia Rashad delivers a chilling monologue that is awe-inspiring.

Don't see it if There is no reason not to see it.

Exquisite, Enchanting, Great acting, Resonant, Thought-provoking

See it if you're looking for a masterpiece performance from Phyllicia Rashad, spectacular design, and deeply-felt, elegant writing

Don't see it if you prefer your family dramas neat and tidy

Absorbing, Great acting, Masterful, Riveting, Intense

See it if You want to see a magnificent performance by Ms. Rahsaad & miss the old Negro Ensemble Company & great ensemble acting.

Don't see it if You have trouble understanding black southern dialect. Audio assist device was very helpful.

Beautiful staging, Must see, Riveting, Terrific performances, Funny

See it if You've heard how amazing Phylicia Rashad is because it's all true. Kyle Beltran turns it out again. Also the set is not to be missed.

Don't see it if You're not a fan of plays about race or parables (i.e. a modern take on the story of Job). Otherwise don't miss out.

Great acting, Great staging, Quirky, Must see, Resonant

See it if Go! It creaks, moans, is heavy & brilliant. Phylicia R is magnificent. Cast is great, shout-out to Alana A. Set is alive! Directionsogood.

Don't see it if 'uneven' is a dirty word: if you can absorb whisky, God, starlight mints, Shakespeare, cake, friends, doubt without exploding, you're good

Absorbing, Masterful, Thought-provoking, Resonant, Great acting

See it if Amazing acting and thought-provoking themes; Phylicia Rashad is mesmerizing!

Don't see it if If you prefer insipid, uninspiring theater, steer clear of this; it's all that theater should be!

Great acting, Great staging, Intense, Dizzying, Absorbing

See it if you want to see a truly astonishing piece of acting. Phylicia Rashad is an emotional tornado tearing up the stage of the Public

Don't see it if you don't like serious drama; this is an emotional play about faith, loss and love of family

Epic, Intense, Devistating

See it if (Now closed) - Phylicia Rashad is simultaneously powerful, vulnerable, broken, overwhelming, quiet, and resigned. Design is incredible, too.

Don't see it if You want fast-paced jokes or are looking for a child-friendly show.

Absorbing, Great acting, Great writing, Must see, Profound

See it if To watch Ms. Rashad tear the roof off. Tarrell Alvin McCraney's writing. Wonderful, balanced ensemble. It's going to rip out your heart.

Don't see it if You don't tolerate religious characters. You don't want something so intense. But that'd be a shame.

Kyle beltran, Wonderful ensemble cast, Dramatic, Painful

See it if The stage set is amazing. The cast interaction was tight and authentic. Painful story of a modern day, female, Job.

Don't see it if Not a light show. Draws on family secrets, race, belief in God.

Absorbing, Great acting, Great staging, Thought-provoking, Riveting

See it if You love family dramas, or Phylicia Rashad

Don't see it if religious themes make you uncomfortable.

Great acting, Great staging, Riveting, Slow, Absorbing

See it if you want to see Phylicia Rashad in her second performance of a lifetime (1st, Gem of the Ocean) with a great ensemble & an unbelievable set

Don't see it if You want light & fluffy fare

Absorbing, Great acting, Great staging

See it if You want to see a powerhouse performance by Phylicia Rashad.

Don't see it if You're looking for something upbeat. This is a BLEAK story.

Absorbing, Epic, Great staging, Masterful, Slow

See it if you want to see Phylcia Raschad in a career performance. She carries this show (plus the imaginative set design)

Don't see it if it's a bit long, and not happy (based on the Book of Job after all) so if you want a light hearted romp, this ain't it.

Absorbing, Great acting, Intelligent, Must see, Resonant

See it if you love Felicia Rashad she does a master class in monologues in Act II. Exceptional, not to be missed

Don't see it if you don't like family drama, tragedy

Absorbing, Great acting, Great staging, Riveting, Clever

See it if you like drama and want to see good stage effects

Don't see it if you are looking for a lot of laughs or do not like dramatic monologues

Powerful, Great acting, Great staging, Riveting, Confusing

See it if you want to see Phylicia Rashad in powerful, career-defining performance. Her work here is well worth the price of admission.

Don't see it if long monologues and stylized language aren't your thing. The show sometimes gets lost in itself, but the performances are fantastic.

Great acting, Intense

See it if you're jonesing for a great Phylicia Rashad. A powerhouse performance. The play itself was uneven for me. Read the program note first.

Don't see it if you insist on perfection in a play. This isn't. But it is harrowing. As I mentioned, don't see it if you haven't read the program notes.

Cast & Creatives (16)