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Tarell McCraney, like his plays, ever moving

'Head Passes' rehearsal Steppenwolf Theater. TinLandau Tarell AlvMcCraney. Credit: Joel Moorman.

"Head of Passes" rehearsal at Steppenwolf Theater. Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Credit: Joel Moorman.

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When: In previews; opens Tuesday and runs through June 9

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $55-$78

Info: (312) 335-1650;

Run time: 2 hours and 30
minutes, with one intermission

Updated: April 14, 2013 2:42AM

Tarell Alvin McCraney, the award-winning actor turned playwright, is a man with many artistic homes.

Since 2010 he has been a member of the ensemble at Steppenwolf Theatre, where his trilogy, “The Brother/Sister Plays,” attracted wide attention. In Miami, where he grew up and is now involved in a Shakespeare program that brings theater to 10,000 school kids, he is a member of the Teo Castellanos/D Projects Theater Company, an organization that creates performances fusing world cultures, religion, music and social issues.

He is a member of New Dramatists, the New York-based consortium devoted to the nurturing of the playwright’s art. And, since 2008, he has been an RSC/Warwick International Playwright-in-Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Yet ask McCraney, now 32, about his home address, and he ruefully admits he is still living out of suitcases simply because the itinerant nature of his life — work in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, London, Miami and beyond — makes having an apartment impractical, even if not having a home is beginning to wear him down.

“Doing theater is like being a shark — you have to keep moving,” said McCraney. “But you do get to an age where you must stop, where you want your gym and your doctor and all the rest in one place.”

The on-the-move life has not, however, diminished his creativity. McCraney’s latest play, “Head of Passes,” is about to receive its world premiere at Steppenwolf. Director Tina Landau, his longtime collaborator and mentor, will once again be at the helm. Playing major roles will be actress Alana Arenas, who McCraney met when they were students at the New World School of the Arts High School in Miami and who he later followed to the Theatre School of DePaul University here, as well as Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who was his teacher at DePaul.

Head of Passes is an actual geographical location, the place at the mouth of the Mississippi River that lies between Mississippi and Louisiana.

“I’ve never lived there, but I’ve visited,” said McCraney, who wrote an earlier play, “The Breach,” about the Katrina disaster, the Gulf of Mexico and the state of the nation. “Yet in a sense it is a fictional place, because the land there is forever shifting, with silt washed away by storms. Every map shows it differently.”

Beyond geography, it was the Book of Job, one of the great sections of theOld Testament, that helped McCraney map his play. And it all began with a workshop in which the playwright teamed with Landau and eight actors, reading both Job itself and the scholarly material it has generated.

“I’m fascinated with the Bible in general,” said the playwright, whose grandfather was a pastor, and who, until the age of 13, considered being one himself. “And I found myself wondering: Why would God even have this conversation with a person so quiet about their inner personal life, yet so full of suffering?”

In McCraney’s take on the story, the Job figure is now a contemporary woman — Shelah (played by Bruce) — whose family and friends gather at her home in the marshy Head of Passes area to celebrate her birthday. But as the guests appear, so do ghosts from the past. And Shelah’s convictions about her life begin to dissolve, along with her home, which is deluged by the Louisiana rain.

“In my play, God and Satan don’t arrive to say ‘I told you so.’ Shelah’s suffering grows out of what she desires. She is a strong person who tries to hold her family together.

“Working with all these women I’ve known for so many years is such a joyous experience,” said McCraney, noting that his play, as always, will be infused with music and singing.

Asked to name his primary influences in the theater, McCraney said: “I can name many different poets, as well as my playwrighting colleagues. And then there is Horton Foote, and Ntozake Shange, and Amy Herzog — a classmate of mine at the Yale School of Drama who became a close friend.” (Herzog’s acclaimed drama, “Belleville,” will be produced by Steppenwolf this summer, at just about the same time that another McCraney play, “Choir Boy,” already seen at London’s Royal Court, will be staged at the Manhattan Theatre Club.)

And then there is his ongoing friendship with the legendary director Peter Brook, who he met in 2003 at a Chicago Shakespeare Theater audition.

“We check in with each other periodically,” said McCraney. “As for what I’ve learned from him, it is to be ferociously detailed, and to be adamant about simplicity. Just strip everything way, which is staggeringly hard to do. It makes me think of that stunning line in Job that comes after so much suffering: ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ ”

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