Trials, tribulations in powerful Passes at Berkeley Rep

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Cheryl Lynn Bruce is Shelah and Michael A. Shepperd is Creaker in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. Below: Shepperd’s Creaker prepares for a party with his son, Crier (Jonathan Burke). Photos courtesy of

Some houses leak when it rains. For Shelah, the deluge inside is almost as severe as the one outside, and that’s just the water. The metaphorical flood – of tragedy – has only just begun.

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes, a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and New York’s Public Theater, takes its cue from Job, the world’s most famous sufferer and faith questioner. This time out, the one who will pray on bended knee and shake her fist at God is Shelah, the matriarch of a family whose Louisiana home sits where three forks of the Mississippi River come together in a wetlands area known as Head of Passes.

McCraney, a fast-rising playwright best known in the Bay Area for his extraordinary Brother/Sister Plays, is the kind of writer who blends real-world storytelling with elements of poetry and spirit to create a heightened theatrical language that conjures a world that looks and often feels like our own but then expands or contracts to feel epic or microscopic depending on the dramatic situation.

McCraney has a true gift, and it’s thrilling to fall into one of his plays. Head of Passes is an immersive experience in every way. The story McCraney unspools begins in the realm of classic American family drama – it feels like rich territory trod by O’Neill, Miller, Wilson and the like – but then becomes wholly McCraney in Act 2 when Shelah must deal with the wrath of God. Director Tina Landau (whodirected the play’s 2013 world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company) also delivers an astonishing physical production that drowns Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage in rain, flood and rising tides.

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At first glance, G.W. Skip Mercier’s set reveals a large, handsome two-story home where there’s about to be a birthday party for Shelah, a widow, attended by close friends and her grown children. Festival lights have been strung in what looks to be a nicely appointed day room, where the party will take place. When the storm arrives, we see the rain outside the living room window, but soon enough, the leaky roof might as well not even be there. It’s raining in the living room, and no bucket or pile of towels will catch the overflow.

The party, as they say, must go on. Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce, reprising the role from the Chicago premiere), doesn’t even remember it’s her birthday. She’s happy to see her sons Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (Brian Tyree Henry) and daughter Cookie (Nikkole Salter), but she doesn’t want a fuss. She’s especially dismayed to see her doctor (James Carpenter, who gets one of the evening’s best laughs), the only other person who knows the truth about her precarious health.

Along with a candle-laden cake, the party offers up its fair share of drama, much of it centered around Shelah’s late husband and his relationship with his children (especially Cookie). There’s also a minor father-son drama involving Creaker (Michael A. Shepperd), Shelah’s major domo, and his son, Crier (Jonathan Burke), who seems only a few auditions away from landing a Broadway national tour.

By the end of Act 1, long-suppressed truths have been revealed, betrayals have occurred and relationships have fractured. The emotional storm is matched by the one outside, and havoc is wreaked so effectively, the technical prowess of the production threatens to overwhelm the plot.

But McCraney and Landau are too canny to let that happen. Act 2 essentially becomes a monologue for Shelah, a churchgoing woman all her life, who suffers wave after wave of bad news while the building over her head continuously threatens to dump her into the rising waters below.

Bruce’s performance as Shelah feels appropriately matriarchal at first: she is what holds this family together, and her faith is easy. When she sees a handsome angel (Sullivan Jones), she knows what he’s there for, and she nervously but almost joyfully gives herself over to him so she can finally thank God herself. But it’s not going to be all harps and glowing lights for Shelah. If she thinks she has known suffering, she hasn’t seen anything yet.

Shelah’s agony is palpable, and Bruce’s ability to vacillate between anger and soul-crushing pain is remarkable. Of course there are no easy answers here. Faith is all about uncertainty, and that’s what Shelah has to wrestle with. She hasn’t always done the right thing or the good thing, and in this time of greatest need, she feels every misstep. Where her relationship with God yielded comfort, it now brings torment. Not even her closest friend (Kimberly Scott as Mae) can get close without Shelah lashing out. Her pain is practically toxic.

Shelah’s is a house that will not stand, though Head of Passes will long stand in memory as a powerful piece of American drama.

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes continues through May 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29 to $79. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Marcus, or how Sweet it is

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Richard Prioleau, Omoze Idehenre (center) and Shinelle Azoroh play best friends in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet. Below: Prioleau (center) fantasizes about schoolmates played by Tobie L. Windham (left) and Jared McNeill. Photos by Kevin Berne

We met him as a baby. Then we got to know a little bit more about his father. And now we get to watch Marcus Eshu make his first steps into manhood.

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays cycle is extraordinary, if for no other reason than its admirable ambition. But this trilogy of plays is so much more than admirable – it’s poetic, insightful, gripping and full of beauty. When the plays finally arrived in the Bay Area, they arrived in the form of a colossal collaboration of theater companies.

We were exposed to McCraney’s talent in Marin Theatre Company’s In the Red and Brown Water, a drama so full of wondrous movement and music and myth that in memory it seems more folklore than contemporary drama. Then the drama was scaled down to size, to The Brothers Size, at the Magic Theatre, and we felt the emotional heft of McCraney at his dramatic best.

The stretch between parts 2 and 3 was long, but the wait was worth it. American Conservatory Theater’s Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet takes us back to the housing projects of the fictional San Pere along the Louisiana bayous. The play is yet another spin of McCraney’s enormous talent. If Red and Brown Water was folklore, and Brothers Size was poetic drama, Marcus fills the slot in the coming-of-age category. This may be McCraney’s most conventional play, but it’s also his funniest and most endearing.

That said, the play also feels less fully formed than its predecessors. There are rich rewards in the humor and the performances here, but McCraney leans heavily into some sitcom-ish characters and beats an incessant drum for the impending storm (which may or may not be Hurricane Katrina), and that pounding gets old without ever adding up to much.

As much as I liked Richard Prioleau in the central role of Marcus (whom we met as a babe in arms in Red and Brown Water), it took a tremendous suspension of disbelief to accept him as a 16-year-old. If you can get over the fact that Marcus appears to be a strapping lad in his mid-20s, it’s fascinating to watch Prioleau inhabit the body of this young man, who demonstrates so much insecurity, along with flashes of strength and rebellion, in his tightly held body.

This is a young man of tremendous feeling who wants to hide those feelings at any cost. His whole world calls him “sweet” – the local vernacular for gay – but he thinks he might be able to sneak by without anyone actually knowing the truth. But the truth, as they say, will out. Marcus’ dad, Elegba (so charming in the first play, so sinister in the second), has just died, leaving his son with a whole lot of questions nobody will answer.

It seems Marcus’ dad was sweet too, but Marcus’ mom, Oba (Margo Hall), will definitely not be having that conversation. Funny old Aunt Elegua (Hall again) is more willing to talk, but when she hears Marcus is having dreams about a storm – dreams like Marcus’ dad used to have – she loses it.

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The best parts of the play involve Marcus and his two best girlfriends, Shaunta Iyun (Omozé Idehenre) and Osha (Shinelle Azoroh). Shaunta doesn’t take any crap, not even from Marcus. She knows the truth and she’s willing to talk about it. Osha is in love with Marcus, so she sees only what she wants to see. Idehenre pretty much steals every scene she’s in because she’s able to play the comedy, fill the giant stage and somehow keep her performance grounded in reality.

The only real guidance Marcus has comes from Ogun Size (Gregory Wallace), a man we’ve come to know a little better in each play. Ogun’s story picks up almost directly from the end of Brothers Size after he has sent his little brother, Oshoosi, off to Mexico to escape the long arm of the law. Wallace gives us a brittle, barely standing Ogun, but his interaction with Marcus is poignant. Still, I have to say I craved the solid man-of-the-earth practicality of Joshua Elijah Reese, who played Ogun in The Brothers Size.

Happily, the wonderful Tobie L. Windham reprises his Size role as Oshoosi, and he provides the evening’s most dramatic through line. It turns out that Marcus’ coming out and coming to terms isn’t the real story here. It’s much more about Marcus’ dreams and how Oshoosi figures into them. But there’s something I don’t understand: why does Oshoosi interact with the audience the way he does? He keeps promising us he’ll stop using the “n word.” But if this is Marcus’ dream, why does he care what we think about his language?

Director Mark Rucker attempts to make the giant ACT Theater more intimate by augmenting the simple set by Loy Arcenas (a few moving panels, a platform that raises and lowers) with a stage-wide screen full of Alexander V. Nichols’ projections. There are some gorgeous images, but as the other two productions did, we need the drama and the beauty to come primarily from the actors and the writing.

Family secrets, inescapable legacies and garden variety teen angst all come into play here with varying degrees of success. Marcus is entertaining for much of its nearly two hours, but it doesn’t have the impact of the previous two plays. But as the third part of a trilogy, there’s something bigger at work here.

The pleasures of the individual plays were many, but the real triumph came in the collaboration between ACT, Marin Theatre Company and the Magic. The Brother/Sister Plays turned out to be this fall’s theatrical World Series win. There won’t be a ticker-tape parade down Market Street for all the artists involved, but there really should be.


Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet
continues through Nov. 21 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$82. Call 415 749-2228 or visit

Size matters — Magic’s Brothers is a keeper

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Tobie Windham (left) is Oshoosi Size and Joshua Elijah Reese is Ogun Size in the Magic Theatre’s The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Below: Alex Ubokudom is Elegba. Photos by Jennifer Reiley.

Comparing The Brothers Size, the second part of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays cycle, to In the Red and Brown Water, the first part, is inevitable but ultimately unnecessary.

These are two very different plays, both extraordinary and both extraordinarily well produced by, respectively, Magic Theatre and Marin Theatre Company. Red and Brown opened first and gave us a broad view of McCraney’s world, a working-class Louisiana town where the mostly African-American inhabitants exist in a purely theatrical dimension between reality and poetry, between fact and folklore.

Marin’s Red and Brown, with its musical soundscape and large cast, gave us a wide view. Magic’s The Brothers Size scales things down to a wonderfully intimate, emotionally powerful level. You don’t have to have seen the first part to enjoy the second, but it will provide a richer experience (and the reverse is probably true as well).

In director Octavio Solis, the renowned playwright, the McCraney’s drama has found a deeply insightful guide into a tight brotherly bond challenged by bad behavior and unfortunate circumstances. With only three men in the cast and a mostly bare stage (Sarah Sidman designed the lights and created the set, such as it is with its piles of tires and metal drums, with James Faerron), Solis evokes an entire community through acutely observed details in his actors’ performances.

Joshua Elijah Reese is older brother Ogun Size. We met the character (played by another actor) in In the Red and Brown Water and learned that he’s a hard worker, a self-made man who runs his own car shop. Tobie Windham (a recent graduate of American Conservatory Theater’s MFA program) is younger brother Oshoosi Size, fresh out of the penitentiary and not very excited about finding his way in the world, especially not as his brother’s employee.

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Basically on their own since the death of their mother when they were young, the brothers are fiercely bonded. Their relationship is also fiery, especially since Oshoosi’s return from prison and the heightened contrast between Ogun’s mature and grounded responsibility and Oshoosi’s more profligate ways.

Ogun, as he has done most of his life, is trying to be a steady, guiding figure to his younger brother, but the world and its pleasures are too enticing. Oshoosi is an outsize (pun intended) personality. He’s a pure charmer (and you should see Windham flirt with the audience – shameless and mighty powerful) who has captured the affections of Elegba, a character we met in Part One, played here by Alex Ubokudom.

The two men became close in prison. They were, in Elegba’s careful words, “brothers in need.” Now their relationship is intensely complicated, and Elegba, whose nature is passionate and mischievous, will lead Oshoosi in a dangerous direction.

The plot of The Brothers Size is fairly straightforward as Oshoosi attempts, unsuccessfully in so many ways, to walk the proverbial straight and narrow. But the intensity and the depth of the relationships are incredibly rich and complicated.

McCraney still employs a certain narrative distance, especially when he has his characters recite their own stage directions. But there’s very little emotional distance here (as there is in Red and Brown) because the superb acting provides so many openings into so much conflict and humor and profound human connection.

These brothers love each other with everything they have – but what they have is so very different. When they’re hanging out together listening to Otis Redding, being brothers and having fun, it’s like real life in a discreet theatrical frame. The communication with the audience is so direct and so thrilling it’s impossible not to be sucked into the heart of the story.

With the extraordinary momentum created by In the Red and Brown Water and now The Brothers Size, it’s a shame we have to wait until November for the concluding chapter, Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet at ACT. But good things, as they say, come to those who wait.


Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size continues through October 17 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street. Tickets are $45-$60. Visit For information about The Brother/Sister Plays cycle visit

Cycle revs up in exquisite shades of Red and Brown


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Lakisha May as Oya flirts with danger in the form Isaiah Johnson as Shango in Marin Theatre Company’s In the Red and Brown Water. Below are members of the ensemble (from left) Ryan Vincent Anderson, Jared McNeill, Dawn L. Troupe, May and Daveed Diggs. Photos courtesy of


Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water feels like ritual. It feels like a party. It feels like living, breathing poetry. And that’s a hell of way to begin a prodigious three-play cycle involving three plays, three theaters and one playwright.

It fell to Marin Theatre Company to launch McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays, a trilogy produced in tandem with the Magic Theatre (up next with The Brothers Size) and American Conservatory Theater (wrapping things up with Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet). It’s probably hardest to be first, but you wouldn’t know it from the production that shimmered on stage in Mill Valley Tuesday night.

Director Ryan Rilette’s In the Red and Brown Water couldn’t be a more auspicious beginning. This is a play so full of powerfully beautiful language and fluid storytelling that you don’t want to get in its way. Rilette wisely lets set and lighting designer York Kennedy work his magic on a seemingly empty stage that quickly becomes populated by the people, places and dreams of San Pere, Louisiana.

In the center of the stage is a raised platform. Poles stacked with lights line the sides of the stage, and there’s a small set of risers against the back wall. That’s it, but nothing more is needed. Lydia Tanji’s costumes are simple and contemporary but evoke character through fabric colors and the amount of skin allowed to show under the clothes. You know a certain character is trouble when he enters in a skin-tight tank top brandishing a bandana as if it were a weapon of sexual destruction.

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Combining myths and characters from the Yoruba (West Africa) and Santeria (Cuba by way of the Yoruba, Spanish Catholic and Native American traditions) cultures, McCraney tells the sad story of Oya (Lakisha May), the goddess of change, transition and chaos. In this tale, she’s a talented young high-school track star who turns down a full-ride college scholarship so she can stay home with her ailing mother (Nicol Foster as Mama Moja, among other roles). A bright light in her community, Oya falls under the spell of the sultry Shango (Isaiah Johnson), whose folkloric roots are in male fertility. Oya finds herself torn between the brute masculinity of Shango and the more stable and loving Ogun (Ryan Vincent Anderson).

McCraney’s language is full of narrative, which the characters use to describe their own feelings as well as their entrances and exits. This has a distancing effect for the most part but can be used with humor (when the line is given certain attitude) or with poignancy, as when Ogun exits saying, “Ogun leaves his heart behind.”

A great deal of the poetry comes from the character Elegba (Jared McNeill), a randy young man who dreams portentous dreams and unleashes a steady stream of mischief. And a lot of the humor bubbles out of Aunt Elegua (Dawn L. Troupe), a busybody with a taste for younger men and speaking her mind.

The narrative threads are strong – we care about Oya and her increasingly troubled journey – though the second of the show’s two hours loses some momentum as Oya’s story forces her to become old before her time. But the graceful power of Rilette’s staging and the unfailing excellence of his cast (which also includes Jalene Goodwin, Josh Schell and Daveed Diggs) always keeps the play compelling.

The rhythms are all right here. The play begins with breathing and voices joined in music making. Later in the play, rhythm is re-established by breathing and drumming. And there’s a lot of singing, gorgeous, soulful singing. McCraney provided the words (and pulls in some traditional spirituals), and the cast came up with the music and arrangements (with an assist from music supervisor Zane Mark).

McCraney says in a program note that he wants to create something “distant yet present, something else.” And that’s exactly what he’s done. This is exquisitely beautiful theater, vital and contemporary yet steeped in tradition. Everything old is once again new.


Marin Theatre Company’s In the Red and Brown Water continues an extended run through Oct. 10 at 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $33-$53. Call 415 388-5208 or visit To learn more about the Brother/Sister Plays cycle visit