More Than Skin Deep
Shá Cage's now nationally touring, one-woman show, "U/G/L/Y," fearlessly takes on the thorny issues of body image and beauty, violence and heartache in an array of characters and stories bringing to life the particular, persistent ugliness faced by women of color.
In solo performance, Shá Cage has found the perfect vehicle to showcase her many talents. Creating her own material, she devises a rich tapestry of distinct, original characters weaving their stories into a multifaceted presentation. She employs her curatorial chops by enlisting collaborators who bring their own unique talents to the production as choreographers, artists, videographers and musicians. U/G/L/Y, the second in a three-part series exploring identity, premiered at Intermedia Arts in late January. In this ambitious solo work, it’s Cage’s meticulous attention to detail as a performer that shines through.
The show’s subject matter, body image, is challenging: taking on, in performance, issues surrounding the way women see themselves can be a dangerous prospect. It’s so often done badly. Remember those horrible Dove soap commercials? They featured women — not model-thin, but mostly white, able-bodied and conventionally attractive — weeping as they discover that someone else has noticed how beautiful they are. (Ann Friedman’s got a great critique on the subject.) The Dove commercials didn’t empower women to question the cultural primacy of “beauty;” the ad spots offered no real critique or alternatives to such rigid notions of femininity. In fact, they subtly reinforced society’s obsession with appearance with their reassurance that, in others’ eyes, you’re prettier than you think you are.
Talking about gender can be dicey. I realize I come at this from a white, heterosexual, cis-privileged perspective. Questions of gender are complicated for everyone, not just women. Men (and others on the gender continuum) contend with problems surrounding body image and self-loathing over their appearance as well. Even so, I think it’s important to talk about the particular pressures put on women to be conventionally attractive, starting from a very early age.
All this is to say, as I watched the January 24th performance of U/G/L/Y, I spent a lot of time thinking about men. And as I watched, I got angry — not at the performance, but at the fact that most of the men I’ve known just don’t experience the same sort of daily anxiety and grief over what they look like. Men’s appearance simply doesn’t affect their careers in the same way. They certainly don’t feel a necessity to spend the kind of time and effort that I and most other women feel obliged to spend on routine maintenance.
Fortunately, though, Cage’s U/G/L/Y focuses less on women’s unhappiness with the way they look (though the piece does address that issue) and more on a broader look at ugliness: how it’s manifested through violence, pain, and trauma in the lives of the women of color she portrays. She shows the ugliness as domestic violence, as a raging fire that claims a family, the pain of giving birth to a child that’s born dead. Her stories speak to the horror in human experience; her lens focuses on its manifestation in the particular struggles faced by women of color.
The majority of the evening’s performance featured Cage working solo on stage, accompanied by violinist Katherine Pehrson. Video pieces were interspersed throughout the show, a number of which featured interviews with (mostly young) women talking about how they view themselves when they look in a mirror. These video interviews were difficult for me to watch. I spent most of my adult life with an eating disorder; it was only a few years ago that I was finally able to let it go. I can thankfully say I don’t hate myself when I look in the mirror anymore, but watching these interviews triggered some old thoughts, old feelings from which I’ve worked hard to escape. Watching these young women describe themselves, I found myself unsettled, disrupted from the experience of simply watching a performance.
In another of the videos, Sherine Onukwuwe talks about her mother’s beauty, and about how she’s attracted to melancholy as a thing of beauty. Onukwuwe’s gorgeous, deep voice and deft camera work offered a welcome reminder of what I sometimes forget — that talent, the ability to beautifully and clearly express oneself, trumps good looks like any day.
Last month’s weekend-long run of U/G/L/Y officially launched the national tour of the work, funded by the National Performance Network Creation Fund. Cage and her husband, E.G. Bailey, who directed the show, tell me they plan to continue to develop the piece as they prepare for future performances in Minnesota and around the country. The show will finish its cross-country tour back home, at the Guthrie Theater, later this year for a production that will offer opportunities for sophisticated tech elements and more elaborate staging. As we chat, Bailey mentions that 50% of the show was changed less than a week before the opening. (They decided not to use one of the larger stories about Cage’s mother’s struggle with cancer and went back and forth on a series of short monologues.) But that’s the nature of a piece still in development – finding the right narrative pace, the right flow to balance the rhythms of of really dramatic episodes with lighter moments of humor.
And I don’t think they’ve quite found it yet; in particular, some of the comic moments felt a bit off-kilter, out of step with the rest of the narrative. But when Cage’s comedy came out of the stories of the women themselves, the humor worked quite well. There’s a short monologue, for instance, where one of her characters talks about when she was very young, she was teased about her “flaring nostrils.” She recalls a family member suggesting that she respond with “The better to smell you with, stinky butt!” Cage so clearly became this little girl before our eyes that her struggle felt very real. We laughed, because her story rang so true.