By Dwight Hobbes
Shá Cage has emerged as one of the Twin Cities’ most powerful proponents for strengthening the image and celebrating the hearts and souls of Black women.
The accomplished actor, performance artist and spoken-wordsmith began this initiative in the late ‘90s, co-founding the still regrettably unsung MaMA mOsAiC, Minnesota’s first ensemble of color projecting women’s consciousness. Cage reflects, in an MSR interview of few years back, “Signe Harriday, Jeany Park and I founded [it], which was the beginning of my professional career as one who creates theatre for, by and about women and aimed at employing women behind the scenes.”
These days, lauded by no less a personage than Cornel West as “inspiring and evocative,” there is nothing unsung about anything she does from projecting consciousness to heading up the internationally renowned Minnesota Spoken Word Association with husband e.g. bailey, a venerated artist in his own right; to acting at prestigious venues like Mixed Blood Theatre, Intermedia Arts and, currently, Park Square, where she continues her commitment in the cast of Tazewell Thompson’s Mary T. & Lizzy K.
Mary T. & Lizzy K. looks at the friendship between Abraham Lincoln’s wife and her seamstress, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly, a freed slave who, it turns out, did a great deal more in life than put pretty clothes on Mary Todd Lincoln. Shá Cage plays Elizabeth Keckly.
Asked what she finds most rewarding about portraying Keckly, she says, “I appreciate that this plays makes room for [her] story to be told. Of course, there are all these incredible people in history, particularly African Americans, that played a significant role and were worthy of being known, but very few are. She was one of those individuals very few know about.”
True enough, if the books were more forthcoming about American history there’d be a considerably less pressing need to unearth African American history. “She was a designer of fashion extraordinaire and made these amazing gowns for many of the elite in Washington, D.C.,” which included the wives of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.
Importantly, she did not forget where she came from. Keckly had purchased her freedom and that of her son. “She helped slaves who had recently come to D.C., helped them integrate into life, get their certificate [of freedom].
“She taught young girls how to sew and took on many apprentices to give them a skill to make a living with, which is something her mother gave her.”
Among her most prominent contributions was the founding of the Contraband Relief Association. The CRA provided food, shelter and clothing to newly freed slaves, empowering a general movement toward Black autonomy. A networking godsend, it helped to place African American teachers in Blacks schools and was a boon to Union soldiers, helping the sick and wounded recover.
The organization utilized that age-old community cornerstone, the Black church, for fund-raising gatherings. Among them were the Twelfth Baptist Church, Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Siloam Presbyterian Church, with the vocal support of such leaders as Frederick Douglass, J. Sella Martin and Wendell Phillips. “[Elizabeth Keckly] helped women see they had a role in life,” Cage sums up, “that could be self-generated.”
With Shà Cage in Mary T. & Lizzy K. are five-time Emmy nominee Linda Kelsey, Stephen D’Ambrose and Nike Kadri, directed by Richard Cook.
Mary T. & Lizzy K. runs through November 10 at Park Square Theatre. For more information, call 651-291-7005 or go to www.parksquaretheatre.org.
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