Mississippi-born, Minneapolis-raised actress, playwright, director and poet Sha Cage achieved success by insisting on marching to the beat of her own drum. When others insisted she choose just one form of art and stick to it, she resisted. That decision has led her to a profoundly fulfilling multi-hyphenate career.
“At first I felt some type of way,” she stated in a recent interview with Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, “but I was called to different genres and that ended up shaping me. I followed my heart and my passions. It’s hard for people to put me in a box, and I’m okay with that.”
A staple on the Minneapolis arts scene for over 20 years, Cage began her life in the arts writing poetry as a teen. Though she aspired to a life in acting and writing, she eventually majored in communications and economics and minored in theater at Macalester College.
“I thought I was going to own my own theater one day and they didn’t have a business major, so I chose economics. I thought, well, if I’m gonna have my own theater, I’m gonna need to be able to manage the administrative financial side,” she said.
Communications was also a practical choice. “I was intimidated by the ambiguity of what a theater artist was. Like, can I make money? Plus there were hardly any people of color in that program. I was trying to follow a realistic path.”
Eventually, Cage found a community of creators that inspired her to venture into acting. She joined a collective called Sisters in Struggle where she found her voice as an actress. “That’s where I understood I could do this.”
One role, in particular, stands out. “I did ‘For Colored Girls’ [Ntozake Shange’s ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf’]. That tore me up. Ripped me wide open and put me back together. And I was like, wow! Theater is so raw and real.”
Among her many credits, Cage directed “African School Girls” at the Jungle Theater and performed in “Hidden Heroes” about the Black women of NASA, as Tendi in “Familiar,” Lady Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet” at the Guthrie, and played the title character’s mother in the coming-of-age film “Jasmine Is A Star” by Minneapolis filmmaker Jo Rochelle.
As an actress, Cage is drawn to challenging roles. “I’m drawn to roles as an actor that are going to confuse me, frustrate me, make me have to work. Those most people run away from are the ones I run toward. If the journey was like running uphill, I know it’s just gonna make me a better artist.”
As a writer, her experience as a poet looms large. “I came to writing experimentally as a poet, a spoken word artist.” she explained. “Breaking the form, playing with the breaks, the alliteration, those were things that excited me. Playing with vernacular, knowing my community members knew what I was talking about but others didn’t. So, I think as a writer that’s where I feel most cozy.”
Although literary powerhouses like Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, Sonja Sanchez, and June Jordan were influences, perhaps the person who has influenced her most was legendary Minneapolis spoken word artist J. Otis Powell, who passed away in 2017. “He was one of our most precious elders,” said Cage. “He was a poet and an innovator.
“He was highly influential in the early days of slam and spoken word in the Twin Cities. He also created Write On! Radio at KFAI, which created a platform for our community. He was very well known for not taking crap from anybody. He always told it like it was.”
For Cage, what distinguishes the Minneapolis arts scene from others is the spirit of collaboration between local artists. “When we come up with ideas, we often think about other artists that are not necessarily in our art form to collaborate with.”
Numerous examples of creatives from different artistic backgrounds coming together mark Cage’s life as an artist in Minneapolis. “It was always an intersection of different art forms playing together in the same space without any issues. That’s what was and still is exciting about the Twin Cities.”
The mother of two believes the latest diversity efforts in the arts still fall woefully short of what’s needed locally and nationally. “I hate to sound pessimistic, but I’m just gonna keep it real. I’m disappointed with where we are right now, as a nation and also in the Twin Cities,” she said.
“Black journalists, writers, directors, and actors aren’t being cultivated, not those working in that space now nor those coming up. It’s made to look like there’s an abundance, but there is still a lack of funding and investment in us in a way that allows us to soar.”
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