In Twin Cities spoken word, a field glutted with grandstanding hacks, gifted veteran Shá Cage is an exception that proves the proverbial rule. Nine out of 10 alleged artists are antagonistic, interminably posturing, self-congratulatory frauds who expect a standing ovation for breathing while Black, substituting a lousy attitude for having something to say. Cage, with her album Amber People (Tru Ruts/Speakeasy Records) and scores of guest appearances throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, not to mention internationally from Africa to Europe to England and elsewhere, refreshingly deals in authenticity, a sure hand for the craft and messages of self-empowerment.
Accordingly, her solo debut, N.I.G.G.E.R., was a welcome premiere at Intermedia Arts (March 7 – 10), ably directed by e. g. bailey, her husband and partner at Minnesota Spoken Word Association and Tru Ruts Endeavors, and enjoyed a sold-out run. Ever since iconic activist Dick Gregory’s 1963 autobiography of the same title, artists have, in one way or another to varying effect, confronted that demeaning slur, working to lessen its crippling impact on African Americans’ self-esteem and defied White attitudes that’ve limited Black life. Shá Cage’s offering, the playbill notes, is “a provocative look at the ’N’ word through a female lens.”
N.I.G.G.E.R. isn’t perfect. It is, nonetheless, effective, at times powerful, by benefit of rich, stark language and touching characterizations.
Cage draws on beautifully honed skill with poetry to stir emotion, evoking images — culled from history, slavery to present day — of such female experience as has made all the difference in the world between being created Africans and being forced to evolve into that complex singularity, the African American. She succinctly, profoundly reflects with haiku-like economy, soul-deep strength. “Three hundred fifty years of racism against a people with one word…one word…at its root.” She doesn’t waste words, either, when using more of them, “thick and sticky like plantation whips dripping dried histories of people who found themselves on foreign soil transported cross ocean morgues away from home….from native land.” Or, “Look at her. She is but one in a long line of fallen faces upon a mirrored reflection that stares her still each morning begging for a nod, a wink, a simple ‘ I see you Black girl’.”
Among her characters, Cage creates the heartbreaking depiction of a little Liberian girl, all gussied up, cute as can be for the first day at school in America, who, cruelly treated, goes home devastated. And there’s a community fixture many of us know. The old bat, is crazy as an out-house rat, who makes more common sense than 10 encyclopedias. In an hilariously poignant scene, Kevin D. West put in a cameo appearance opposite Shá Cage’s depiction of a quintessential brass-and-sassafras sistah who because she’s sitting on a bar stool don’t mean she’s nobody’s easy pickup. West was the perennial, slick talking, ditty-bop walkin’, dyed-in-the-wool playa. Cage played Ms. Rosey, his prospective prey with “a smile sexy enough to fry pork chops on” who, once the dashing Chocolate Double-Dipped-Dark Chocolate Charlie (that’s his name, honest) strikes the right chord, flips the script, in man-chases-woman-’til-woman-captures-man fashion.
There are problems that, this being a production-in-progress, can be solved. Glaringly, the Liberian child’s tragic encounter demands to be fleshed out. What happens between her tears drying at school and the brave little lady lying to her parents, “It was the greatest day of my life.” The work gets too gimmicky, lapsing into performance art for the sake of performance art rather than utilizing the art form to do what only the art form can do.
Importantly, Shá Cage’s N.I.G.G.E.R. honors and conveys the spirit and strength that have seen Black women and girls prevail over the eons against an unceasing onslaught of man’s inhumanity to woman by acts of racism, sexism and both.
Joining Cage (www.shacage.com) were, in fine voice, a regrettably under utilized Chastity Brown, inventive puppeteer Janaki Ranpura and skilled dancer Alissa Paris with lively choreography by Leah Nelson.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.