“U/G/L/Y”, women and identity

“Many tentacles that lead back to growing community through the arts” is how award-winning actor/activist Shá Cage describes not only the numerous projects she’s involved in, but also the ultimate goal of all of them. She brings the second part of her theatrical trilogy, “U/G/L/Y,” to the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio Sept. 24-27, 2015. Cage answered questions asked recently by the Minnesota Women’s Press about her one-woman show, Serena Williams and the #SayHerName movement.

Minnesota Women’s Press: What is “U/G/L/Y?” What is it about? What was the inspiration for this piece?
Shá Cage: 
“U/G/L/Y” is a solo theater performance that stretches the one-woman play concept. I am intrigued by the many layers that make up identity and how our identities as women are inspired, inundated, transformed and birthed from the world we live in. I’ve embarked on a three-part, five-year examination around identity – this is the second part. This examination was largely inspired by becoming a mother, growing older in my own skin, watching my own mother recover physically and mentally from cancer surgery and my life’s work with women who fight daily to just wake up in the morning, to see their own reflection and smile.

MWP: What is your personal story and who are your female inspirations?
 I am a stage actor whose work is heavily seeded by community work and activism. I move from commissioned-based work to directing and consulting to poetry and spoken word to film. I co-founded Mama Mosaic Theater for Women 14 years ago, as well as the Minnesota Spoken Word Association. [I’m] a part of community-based organization, Tru Ruts, with E.G. Bailey. [I am also] the guest curator at Intermedia Arts and a Creative Citymaker artist with the city of Minneapolis.

Who are your role models?
SC: I’m inspired by everyday, hardworking, good-hearted women around me – aunts, sister-friends, mentors and mamas. Early inspirations for me included Maya Angelou, Sonja Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Harriet Tubman and June Jordan. Locally, Ananya Chatterjea, Carolyn Holbrook and Laurie Carlos were inspirational as I was developing my craft. Aesthetically, Anna Deavere Smith’s and Sara Jones’ work is a tradition I am working in.

MWP: Why is this performance important to you?
This performance allows me an opportunity to be in a larger dialogue with my community around themes that carry a lot of baggage, such as post-partum depression and aging. It is my most personal and, therefore, most vulnerable. I believe in the possibility of finding release and healing by shedding light on that which lingers in the dark. Isolation can be a crippling phenomenon.

MWP: “U/G/L/Y” will be performed locally at a critical cultural moment in the nation: critics are denigrating tennis star Serena Williams’ astounding athletic achievements and beauty as “unfeminine” while the #SayHerName contingency of the Black Lives Matter movement had to reinsert the lives and deaths of Black cisgender and transgender women into the group’s activism. How does your work fit into this larger moment?

SC: Conformity is a game we will never win at. When public figures like Serena Williams – who is undeniably beautiful, strong and highly talented – are ridiculed because of these affirming qualities, it is clear what is at play: insecurity.

I approach this in “U/G/L/Y” holistically with reference to societal influences, criticism and forces that attempt to have us acclimate. Ritual, spirituality and sisterhood are essential for us in the public eye [in order] to keep our grounding and resist the pull to become something we are not. Politically we are at a place where our community, the Black community – and Black women in particular – demands to be seen, heard and made visible. It’s no secret that Black women have been erased from history. “U/G/L/Y” speaks to the invisible truth and perspective that is often left out of mainstream. At a time when our culture is under attack, works like this become critical in affirming that which we know is true: Black is strong; Black is beautiful; and, yes, Black is complicated.