Arguing with God

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

If you could talk to god, what would you say?

That's a prompt professors often use when talking about Greek theater. The Greeks thought of their theater as an opportunity to talk directly to the gods: to ask them "why?" Their theaters were literally built around the idea.

So a couple of years ago, during a class when I used just this set-up, a student, un-ironically said, "God, I wish we still wrote plays that way."

I wish I had that student's number so I could call her and tell her to rush to see Tarrell Alvin McCraney's play Head of Passes at the Mark Taper Forum.

Act Two of this remarkable play, is a profound cry out to God.

Indeed, that's even the way the play starts with Shelah praying to god for strength. She's the matriarch of this black family at a turning point. Shelah's got a plan on how she wants to keep her family together when she's gone and she needs God's help.

Head of Passes is a fate-of-the-family play and while the specifics are unique, you're sure to recognize the broad outlines of the form. We're at the family home and it's a special night. The grown children have all returned, and questions of the future hang pregnant in the air. Of course, with the notion of what comes next we have to unearth the family's past and that's never pretty -- especially with this family.

Like the classic family plays, Mr. McCraney builds his story through revelation.

If you're a moviegoer you may recognize Mr. McCraney's name from Moonlight. If you're a lucky theatergoer you may have seen his Brother/Sister plays at the Fountain or Choir Boy at the Geffen. In all those works, you have, as an audience member, a feeling of entering an entire world. You're not just hearing words, you're being invited into a complete culture. It can be a little disorienting at first and Head of Passes is no different.

The voices are so distinct and clearly written, it's almost like you need to learn this family's particular language to gain entrance to the world. The actors burst onto stage with so much energy and information it takes a minute for it to all sink in. Don't worry. You're in very capable hands. Both Mr. McCraney and this brilliant ensemble cast directed by Tina Landau make sure that not only are we along for the ride but that the moments that need to hit us -- really hit us.

While there are a ton of reasons you don't want to miss this production (a brilliant set, a stunning cast, nuanced direction), what you'll likely leave the theater talking about is Phylicia Rashad's virtuosic performance. Mr. McCraney's play is a treacherous steeplechase for the actor demanding a versatility and technical precision that leaves little room for error. Ms. Rashad is stunning . . . and when she starts questioning God - look out.

Don't miss her performance. Don't miss this play.

Head of Passes plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through October 22.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.

Photo: Phylicia Rashad in Head of Passes at the Mark Taper Forum (© 2017 Craig Schwartz)