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The Mississippi River is a live and well this spring at the Berkeley Rep west coast premiere of HEAD OF PASSES. 74 miles outside New Orleans lies the Head of Passes, the part of the mighty Mississippi river before it breaks up into three passages. At the Berk Reps Thrust stage is the house of Shelah Reynolds on the river's edge.

Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s very moving family saga and arch with the Book of Job works like a very deep dip in the river of life. Directed by Tina Landau this family drama is at times a soap, but has the power and raw voice of McCraney’s pen. The production was part of the Joyce Award in 2010 and was a hit at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. According to Alvin “I remember during Katrina, someone said why do people live there? they know it's below sea level- The Mississippi shifts and then our lives shift forever - I wanted to look at how we maintain our faith in the presence of tragic, disastrous events”

One of the stars of this Berkeley production is G.W. Skip Merciers show stopping set that becomes one of the leads in this story. Yes the set at times does upstage this story as the Mississippi makes its way into the Thrust Theatre - It is very impressive and will make you think about the drought we are now dealing with. Of course the subtext of water and the bible are the force of nature in the second act that overcomes Shelahs family.

The setting is one day and night in this families life. Its Shelah birthday and as the story opens we can see the wrath of the storm already over taking her home. Cheryl Lynn Bruce who opened this play at the Steppenwolf in Chicago, is superb as Shelah. She is the stern in keeping her family from knowing about her terminal illness, she is very connected to the bible and won’t even say or get near “deviled” eggs.

Shelah a bit groggy dealing with her terminal date forgets that it is her birthday, but her family has a party set to celebrate at midnight. Francois Battiste is cast as her son Audrey and plays the role well as he tries to convince mom he is the better son. Brian Tyree Henry is cast as second son Spencer also preparing a celebration for their illing mom that includes Dr Anderson her doctor played by bay area favorite James Carpenter. Mae her close friend is played by the wonderful Kimberly Scott and Michael Shepperd is Creaker. Jonathan Burke is cast as her young nephew Crier. I must admit the first act does take me to a few Tyler Perry moments and I didn’t want that “soap” feel to distract me from this family story Shelah’s breathing is clear sign “The Angel” has arrived for her.

When her step daughter Cookie enters late in the first act, so intensely performed by Nikkole Salter, she is drenched in rain mostly caught while she enters the home as the storm takes hold of the failing home. Cookie brings in the dark side to the family high on her addiction and not caring about the news of her step moms end approaching.

As the second act opens the river has taken the lead and the house is falling into the passes. Deep secrets and sins are revealed and the Angel has come for Shelah. Scott Zielinski lighting design takes hold of you as the overhead patio lights and reflection of death are seen the flooding waters. I can't agree with this play's two hour plus flow, McCraney sometime loses me, but I can not disagree how this drama still held me till the haunting close and the final monologue from Shelah. Faith is held hostage and this wonderful play is worth a visit to the Berkeley Rep.


By Tarell Alvin McCraney, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Directed by Tina Landau

Through: May 24 - Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage,

2025 Addison St.

Running time: 2 hours,

Cast: 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)

Creative team: G. W. Skip Mercier (scenic designer), Toni-Leslie James (costume designer), Scott Zielinski (lighting designer), and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound design)

Tickets: $29-$79; 510-647-2949,

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