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Welcome to Head of Passes

by Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey

Head of Passes is a faith journey. Ensemble members Tarell McCraney, the playwright, and Tina Landau, the director, began with the idea that they wanted to explore the Biblical Book of Job, the Old Testament book that interrogates the question: “Why do the righteous suffer?” The book proceeds as a dialogue between God and Satan and is a contest for the soul of the righteous Job. Satan contends that Job’s faith is untested, a function of his prosperity, and challenges God to visit tragedy on the man to discover if Job will curse God when he is made to suffer and lose all. And indeed, Job is afflicted by the loss of his possessions, his family, and his health. He does not curse God but seeks an explanation for why he, an innocent man, is made to suffer. Tarell has said that he used the Book of Job as an inspiration for Head of Passes without an obligation to its narrative shape. Rather, that his interest was in imagining the struggle that Job undergoes to maintain his faith. What is Job’s conversation with himself and with God when he has been laid low by loss and tragedy? Job emerges with his faith intact, but what is that internal process through which he arrives at an assertion of faith? Are faith and doubt incompatible, or is doubt inseparable from the process of coming to faith? Many people were surprised (and disappointed) when Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. published Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, a biography of Mother Teresa. In it Kolodiejchuk relates that Mother Teresa, regarded by many as a saint, was riven by doubt and despair. Tarell is interested in the internal dialogue in the struggle that brings one, however agonized, to faith. I resist describing the events of Head of Passes—it is yours to witness—and instead ask you to also observe the structure of the play and the way in which Tarell has unfolded the conversation of the play to take us on the journey of faith that Shelah, the central character modeled on Job, must endure. Head of Passes is intriguing in both its content and form—or rather, in the way that the form moves us into the heart of the play’s intensifying interrogation of faith. The first act of the play proceeds in the dramatic mode: it is comprised of dialogue, constructed in quotidian time and establishes the world of the play. We discover the setting and are introduced to the community gathered for Shelah’s birthday. The form of the play feels familiar—as theatergoers, we know how to enter this fictive world. The one uncanny note is that when alone, Shelah “sees” a character named Angel and converses with him. It is a comfort to her—evidence that she is ready to leave this world, accepting of her illness and ready to be called home to God. When the second act opens, we enter the epic mode of compressed time. The crises of the play, all of which are assumed to have happened in that interval between acts, are narrated on stage. Time and event are compressed and we are given a nearly telegraphic rendering of the life-changing events that transpire. Shelah, too, reviews her entire life in the compression of stage time. Her memory carries her through years of life in the relative instant of our witness. In the final scene of the play, we are in the exploded time of the lyric mode as we enter the solitude of Shelah’s mind as she lets go of this world. The lyric mode is a timeless realm—the world of thought, when we are both in this world and in the realm of our past and future. It is both reflection and projection—the suspended realm, poised between our birth and our death. It is the backdrop of everything we are in the present. It is Shelah’s self-interrogation and her plea for God’s witness when she is most alone and lost. And then the grace note: we return to the dramatic mode as Shelah encounters the character designated in the script as “Construction Worker” and played by the same actor previously identified as “Angel.” It is a beautiful touch. Shelah is asked to emerge from the solitude of her own mind by an unassuming construction worker, come to tear down her storm-battered home. That he is also designated Angel suggests that indeed, he is an agent of God. But unlike the Angel Shelah encounters in the first act, he is also of this world. He brings the limitations of his humanity as witness to Shelah’s deepest expressions of doubt. After her agonizing struggle to understand her life—the tragedies and her culpability—and God’s logic in that, the construction worker’s response is healingly humble: Only god knows those things and who Would want to know all of that all the time. Seem Like to me He spare us some pain and allow Us ignorance of so many things and powerless Too. Would you like to be responsible for death And life and light and dark and…I mean that’s A lot. Seem he just say to us here go your lil’ piece Make with it what you will and if you need me I’ll listen. That the end of Shelah’s struggle for faith is a return to human dialogue—a conversation in real time with another person (who is both a construction worker and an angel)—reveals deeply Tarell’s particular understanding of what the faith journey looks like. We are in this world. We have a very limited understanding of, and power over, the events of this world. The divine intervention in our lives may come to us in surprising garb and speak to us the language of humility. The membrane between this world and the unseen world may be porous. We must endure our doubt, we must endure not knowing. Somewhere in that, is our faith. -Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey