Shá Cage hardly rests on her laurels. After the runaway success of New Neighbors, which debuted in June at the Sundance Film Festival, Cage has performed on more than 50 venues internationally and still tours prestigious outlets.
Indeed, on the heels of starring in and co-producing the short film with director-screenwriter husband E. G. Bailey, Cage appeared in Romeo and Juliet (Guthrie Theater) and, next up, performs in the world premiere of Khephra: A Hip Hop Holiday Story at Open Eye Figure Theatre.
Bailey, who helmed her previous works U/G/L/Y and N-Word, again directs. A founder of the historic ensemble MaMA mOsAiC, Cage continues a decade-long career of empowering Black women and girls through distinct artistry, singularly resonating with what she calls, “My home community. People of the sun.”
Khephra, after the Egyptian deity representing transformation and evolution, is culturally enlightening entertainment for all ages. Five-year-old Khephra and mom, on their own after the man of the family passes away, relocate from West Africa to the U.S. for a fresh start —veritable strangers in literally a strange new world.
On her way to womanhood, the child transcends, acclimating yet sustaining — in fact, reclaiming — her sense of self. All conveyed via spoken word, puppets, music, and dance, and the creative team comprised of Cage, Bailey, performer Alissa Paris, scenic designer Ta-Coumba Aiken, Michael Sommers (puppetry), Janaki Rampura (puppetry dramaturg), Rico Mendez (composer/musician) and Jamela Pettiford (vocalist).
It’s a short evening, one act in 50 minutes with plenty of time to reflect on the experience over dinner, drinks or otherwise idling afterward.
Shá Cage (SC), ripping and running between dropping her sons off and meeting appointments, sat at Pow Wow Grounds coffee shop to chat with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR). An excerpt of the conversation appears below.
MSR: Khephra is a holiday story how? I imagine it fits Mother’s Day as well.
SC: I’ve worked on a show like this for a few years, wanting something family-oriented and fun loving that caters to kids [and] the community — an alternative to the typical Christmas story. I consider it a work in progress in that ideally it’ll grow every year. We’ll learn from how audiences experience it. And, as a mom, there’s a secret desire to start to incorporate my kids into it. Become puppeteers, the voices.
MSR: What is your training?
SC: I graduated from Macalester College. Most of my training has been through the field.
MSR: Learning by doing?
SC: Yeah, absolutely. By the time I graduated with, actually, a minor in theatre, I was already in a female performance troupe, Sisters in Struggle. We were, like, going to Philadelphia, D.C. I’ve traveled pretty extensively. And from working with master craftspeople like Laurie Carlos. I’ve taken lots and lots of workshops. Worked on almost of the major stages here in the U.S. A great deal of community work, [because] so much of my solo work is informed by the community. What do I need, what do they need?
MSR: Your character in New Neighbors, how did you go about approaching her?
SC: First of all, it’s a real person, Faye Blackwell, who found herself locked out of her home, called a locksmith, got in and was taking a shower. Nineteen [cops] dragged her outside, saying they got a report from neighbors that she broke in. They didn’t recognize her. When you’re portraying someone who lived through this kind of incident, you draw from that.
I took it a step further. I’ve lived in neighborhoods where others choose not to speak to me. I’ve introduced my [children]. I’ve felt what it is to be a mother who’s concerned [about] safety, protection, fear. Also determination. E.G. wrote it perfectly for me. [The character] did something I think my grandmother would do. Let’s get up, go introduce ourselves to the neighbors so they have no doubts.
MSR: How is it working with E.G.?
SC: Wonderful. First, we share a vocabulary and don’t spend a lot of time explaining. We have strong artistic spirits yet a deep mutual respect. When people don’t know us they’re like, ‘Is everything okay?’ Because we’re having a heated debate. And, then, like, ‘Let’s go get dinner.’ They ask, ‘You’re friends?’ I always feel I can argue my point, can be heard and he would say the same. We come to a conclusion that supports the work.
Catch Khephra: A Hip Hop Holiday Story at Open Eye Theatre, 506 East 24th Street in South Minneapolis. The preview is Nov. 30 at 7 pm; opening night is Dec. 1 and includes an after-show reception. The show runs until Dec. 9. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for seniors, students, and economic accessibility ticket. There is also pay-as-able admittance at the door. Call 612-874-6338 or go to www.openeyetheatre.org for more info. Free parking at 24th St. & Portland Avenue.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.