‘Raw honesty’: Interview on MinnesotaPlaylist.com

21 October 2008 at 9:00 am (News, Press, Spoken Word, Theatre) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

eg-sha-back-to-back-b-fresh-700pxlRaw honesty
e.g. bailey + Shá Cage interview each other about the work they do.

SHÁ: Alan Berks called and wants us to write something on the function of the performing arts. I’m thinking maybe we interview each other. Talk about some of our ideas on theater, spoken word, and art in general.

E.G.: I’m down. I think that’d be an interesting process. Some of our best ideas come out of conversations. Where do you want to start?

SHÁ: Well… Why do we do what we do?

E.G.: For me, it’s easy. It’s as necessary as breathing. That’s on the personal level. I know that regardless of the obstacle, no matter how bleak the prospects, if I can create or facilitate art, I know I can endure almost anything. It is my daily bread. It is a life, a way to witness and endure. I find it as valuable and necessary as any other field of labor.

SHÁ: A couple of months ago I was invited to give a small lecture to a group of students, all aspiring to become artists. I found it difficult to articulate why I chose this particular path of performing arts or why and how one gets into it. Although I’m sure I’ll hate myself later for saying this, I told them, “It just happens.” The “it” that nudges you on the shoulder one day and demands that you tear off from whatever classical theater track you may have been on because something essential to the dialogue of art and humanity seems to be missing. That’s the purpose it serves for me. This—spoken word plus hip hop theater—is my weapon of choice.

E.G.: I feel like I came late to art. I fell in love with reading, with literature. Not knowing the language when I first came to the U.S. from Liberia, my first responsibility was to learn the language. So, for me, I came to art not for art’s sake but out of necessity. I had to learn how to read. I had to learn the language, learn how this country worked. Once I started learning I fell in love with the art, and eventually it was all I wanted to do.

I didn’t feel strong enough to perform my own work for some time. I disguised myself as an artist. I wrote under assumed names. Let other people perform my work. I didn’t feel I had a voice yet, much less an understanding of performance. I only performed when forced or among very close friends. I eventually stumbled into acting, but it was all play until the end of college when I knew that I didn’t want to be anything but an artist—ideally a writer, but really any field would have been fine with me.

It wasn’t until I came to Minneapolis and started working with the performance group Sirius B under the training of the Hittite Empire that I really began to understand how a person’s art could serve his or her community. That’s when I really started to understand how I could put into practice what I had been studying and reading. I also began to understand why I got a buzz when I read Gordon ParksA Choice of Weapon or what Amiri Baraka was talking about in Raise Race Rays Raze: Creating work that spoke to your community, about your community. What is the community suffering from or missing? Your work needs to address that. It was that work and that training that was instilled in us.

It’s art as necessity rather than art as commerce or art as entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, I think your art can be entertaining without it having to be entertainment. I think socially conscious artist or activist artists, artists that are saying something—or whatever you want to call them—they get pegged with being boring or too serious. You have to mix the message with the medium, but you also have to have fun.

SHÁ: Right. It’s like that Emma Goldman quote, “If I can’t dance, then I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Most of the time people just want to dance and not do the work. They think change just happens. You have to work for it, but at the same time, you have to enjoy yourself too. Which is the beauty of community-based performing arts. It’s ever-changing and always fresh. There’s an urgency to it that comes directly from what your community is dealing with, working through, and processing (both politically and socially) at the time. It keeps you on your toes and regardless of how serious the subject matter—or how deep you are in it—it also demands that you have a sense of humor.

Most of the ideas I get for plays and experimental performance projects are triggered from everyday happenings and bits of conversations. I might be at a town hall meeting at Sabathani or attending a school performance or standing in a crowd of thousands outside the Xcel Center in St. Paul as Obama gives a speech… The list goes on. There’s always been more of a sense of responsibility rather than satisfaction in the work I create for my community. There’s a campaign on the north side called Don’t Shoot… I Want to Live, which is a response to the staggering amount of shootings and senseless killing of African-American men. I was asked to create a performance art piece around this theme that speaks to the mothers and families who had lost their sons to violence. To know that your art is, in a way, “essential” means a lot.

It’s the check that doesn’t come in the mail. It’s rewarding beyond words.

E.G.: It reminds me of how Sirius B’s Monday Morning Body Count was created. One day I was having a conversation with Rene Ford, Ani Sabare, and a few other folks. And Rene was asking if I had heard from Marcus [Bracey, a.k.a. Messiah], Kurt [Washington, a.k.a. Bro’Sun] or Slim [a.k.a. St. Paul Slim]. I hadn’t. He told me that I needed to be sure that I called them on Mondays to make sure they were okay, to make sure that they had survived the weekend. This was 1996 when Minneapolis set a record with the number of homicides, most of them black men. He said that it was our responsibility as part of a community—whether the general community or the community that had been created through Sirius B—to look out for each other, to take care of each other. That conversation transformed into the idea of Monday Morning Body Count, making sure your community is still safe but also taking a toll, who had passed, acknowledging and recognizing them. What was their story and why? One morning shortly after that, I woke up, grabbed my minicassette recorder and spoke a majority of the stories that would become the performance piece. They all came to me in a flush. This happens to me often, a number of pieces will come fully embodied.

And also because I see performance art as a ground for experimentation. Where, like poetry and music, you have the most freedom to experiment with form and the juxtaposition of forms. As you mentioned there is the classical, or traditional, theater but that doesn’t always allow you, or easily allow you, to break or transform the form. Part of the reason it is classical or traditional is that it is in that prescribed form. Whereas performance art, in many ways, the core rule is freedom, openness, the lack of prescribed form. The form takes shape out of the story you’re compelled to tell.

The intention was not only to tell these stories but to use the work as a communal ritual to actively free the spirits that were trapped in the space between worlds until they were named and released. At the end of the performance each night, we named all the victims. It needed that release. We needed that release. Without it, it would have just been another play, just another form of “entertainment.”

Earlier I was talking about tradition and culture. Sometimes I feel like my engagement with culture is more conscious, or conscientious. Perhaps because I was separated from my culture so early and for so long. What I find fascinating about your work is that it’s so deeply rooted in the South. It seems so effortless. Do you consciously incorporate these elements into your work? Or is it just part of the fiber of the way you write and what you write?

SHÁ: I’d say the answer to that is both. Home for me is in the rural South—Natchez, Mississippi. It’s one of the smallest, poorest cities in the United States, but unique in its ability to retain a large percentage of its Africanisms, norms and practices as an African-American culture. The region represents a distinct fabric of people, relations, and a tangible texture that is so ingrained in my writing, my rhythm and even my way of seeing the world, that more often than not, that flavor is unintentional. Other times it’s very much a choice spearheaded with a particular focus or issue I’ve decided to confront. For years I’ve attempted in my work to produce art that talks about the ugly and the pretty of who we are, and that places value on women, elders, and ourselves. Works that are unafraid to openly and proudly retell those private stories our aunties and grandmamas shared with us. I’m particularly interested in poetry that somehow manages to challenge and criticize, holding a mirror up to our faces, while at the same time, uplifts.

My grandmother was the matriarch of the family. She was mother of fourteen children, and the central character that held the numerous parts of our history together. With her passing, I felt an immediacy to carry that tongue forward

I feel there is a rawness that is unabashedly honest that has emerged in this art form [spoken word plus hip hop theater]. That is what is most intriguing to me because, in many ways, that raw honesty is the essence of what art is intended to do. To not second guess or censor itself. These young kids and seasoned griots that have decided to own this art form take an extraordinary risk in this, and their communities rally around them because, despite popular belief and, even in cities that have the highest per capita amount of theater in the nation and every month a new company is developed, there are still key voices, stories, and histories that are not being told. There are masses of people, often those marginalized, who feel theater is not for them because it simply doesn’t speak to them or about them or what they know as life. But the performing arts can allow for those voices to be ushered in—many times on shoestring budgets, sometimes in church houses, or community centers, performed by a combination of trained and untrained actors. That’s my inspiration.

But how do you know your voice is important to the larger artistic conversation?

E.G.: I know I may not be as well-known as some of my peers in this art form, but I believe my work will stand the test of time. It may only be known to a few, or my immediate community, but I believe it influences those around me, those that engage with it. And also I believe it embodies and advances the art form. These are the things I focus on. There is a proverb that says, “The greatest master is not one with the largest flock but he who creates the most masters.” That is part of my personal artistic philosophy. It’s never been a popularity contest for me. I’ve had numerous opportunities to be in front of hundreds and thousands of people, sometimes I’ve taken those opportunities and other times I’ve opted out, giving other folks the opportunity. Part of my work, and where it may have the most influence, is creating the space for others to find and share their voice.

In the end, that may be my largest contribution to the art form, to the community, and perhaps to the larger artistic conversation. I think my work also strives to spread understanding of the art form, studying and articulating the history of it, teaching it to the next generation, supporting those that have a love for it. All this takes time, time that sometimes I wish I could invest more into my own personal work. But I feel compelled to do both. It makes my life very hectic, and constantly busy, but it’s essential to me because if the art form does not continue, does not flourish, does not evolve then what was the point of practicing it. I never wanted to see it just be a fad. So I’ve often said that my work may be for two to five generations down the line.

I think of Larry Neal and Dudley Randall. Neal helped to create the Black Arts Movement with Baraka, and also co-edited Black Fire. Randall—a quiet, unassuming figure—edited the Black Poets, one of my literary bibles, and was the founder of Broadside Press. Both were artists themselves, creating work not widely known, but the power and influence of their work is immeasurable. There would not be spoken word and hip hop, without the Black Arts Movement. Many poets, and works, would have remained unknown with out their efforts.

And I think lastly, I fell in love with art because it saved my life. It taught me how to read and understand the world, how to articulate how I saw this world, and gave me the tools to tell stories, mine and others. I decided early on in my artistic life, that if I could affect or change even just one person’s life the way all the artists I engaged with changed mine, then I will have accomplished my goal with art. Because I know that I have done this, from what those that have been affected have told me, anything else that I accomplish with my art is just icing on the cake.

SHÁ: Well that’s as good as place as any to stop.

Posted on MinnesotaPlaylist.com
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: