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N.I.G.G.E.R. at Intermedia Arts

9 Mar

Pick_5124-XLShá Cage in N.I.G.G.E.R., Photo by Sean Smuda

Perhaps the most provocative thing about Shá Cage’s performance, N.I.G.G.E.R., now playing at Intermedia Arts, is that it is not really provocative. It is evocative. It is necessary. It doesn’t tell us anything new, and that is what is most astounding about its power. It is a teaching reminder. It tells us stories that many wish were relegated to history, but carry on. It is past, in that way that William Faulkner put it, isn’t even past.

Cage is masterful in her storytelling, gathering snippets of interviews around the word in question (which she pointed out in talking afterwards, she was not using as the title of the piece as license to say freely, as emphasized by the periods and strikethrough) and through a mix of embodying different characters, her own poetry as well as Gil Scott-Heron, and video interviews, creates a kaleidoscopic picture of the word’s complexity. Supported by the excellent dancer Alissa Paris and by musician Chastity Brown providing the blues (Chrys Carroll on Saturday on Sunday) the performance purposefully poses contradictory viewpoints and leaves more questions and conflict than answers, epitomized in a phrase coming out of the mouth of an 85-year-old character, “The soup tastes different in everyone’s mouths.”

The soup may taste different, but it is piping hot. The recent arrests of MC Hammer and the frisking of Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker belie the structural racism that exists in “post-racial” America. As one attendee asked in discussion afterward, how are we are a post-racial society when President Obama got on TV after the Sandy Hook massacre, only to have “People dropping the ‘N-Bomb’ on him because they want to watch football?” As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in the op-ed in the New York Times:

“I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark.”

Cage creates nervous laughter in the dark with tumultuous boxing match against a poetic, riffing list of free-associative names, an jarring collection of shadow puppet projections of stereotypical images recalling Kara Walker’s paper cutouts and full-blown rending trauma with stories of love and death in the plantations. If all this leaves an audience unsettled, nervous, discursive, angry and questioning, N.I.G.G.E.R. has succeeded. The more teaching, the less forgetting of history we do, the more we can move forward, lurching confusedly, poetically into the future. We need it, and we need brave storytellers like Cage, and brave audiences.

N.I.G.G.E.R. – Written and Performed by Shá Cage from Intermedia Arts on Vimeo.

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