Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Coco's Diary: A Christmas Gift to Remember
When her father dies, Khephra and mother immigrate to Minnesota with her mother. Khephra is cut off from the life she knows. The bright colors she knew are replaced by grey, the warmth by frigid air, and she must learn to live with snow. She is victimized by neighborhood bullies who use her low status as "the other" to prop up their own. At age 15, she has become a sullen teen-ager, rolling her eyes at her mother's common sense advice. Khephra trudges through this darkness and rediscovers herself through a new means of expression: hip hop. Through words, movement, and her inner spirit, hip hop empowers Khephra to transform her struggles into a new-found joy. She carries this spirit to her church, transforming Christmas into a blend of sacred beliefs and personal exuberance. The play ends with a generous, life-affirming message that certainly embraces every good thing about the holiday season.
Khephra: A Holiday Hip Hop Story was conceived and written as well as acted by Sha Cage in this Open Eye Figure Theatre world premiere production. The 50-minute piece is suitable for all ages, with enough color, movement and humor to engage youngest to eldest. The show is animated by Cage's enigmatic delivery of words and movement. Cage need only jut out her jaw, or narrow her eyes, or raise her arms in exultation to express a depth of feeling that would take streams of words to describe. In this production, Cage does not "play" Khephra; she is Khephra. Her stirring performance is the beating heart of the show.
That heart is surrounded by immensely talented performers with a range of gifts. Destiny Anderson and Alissa Paris use dance to create a swirl of barely controlled passion, both as Ghanaians pouring every ounce of life force into their dance, and as hip-hoppers, whose movements are a bit more constrained in space, but equally passionate. With Cage, they present a delightfully synchronized version of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. Jamela Pettiford makes a joyful sound as the troupe's vocalist, leading the audience in several Christmas sing-alongs (lyrics provided) and raising goosebumps with a soaring a capella rendition of "Mary, Did You Know?" She also fares well as Khephra's practical mother, trying to steer her daughter through the challenge of dislocation.
Music and sound are essential elements of Khephra's life, both in Ghana and in Minnesota. Rico Mendez composed original musical and serves as a DJ, spinning and blending sounds throughout the show, and William "Truthmaze" Harris provides percussion, not with a standard drum set but with a collection of instruments, including an African Talking Drum, that provide the specific sounds needed. Michael Sommers has created fanciful puppets that enliven the show, including a grasshopper, an ant, and a simple white house in which a doll-sized Khephra, created by Susan Haas, finds shelter and solace. The beautiful backdrop to the show was created by Minnesota artist Ta-Coumba Aiken: drops of fabric with bright, boldly covered patterns that seem to represent the fundamental units of life matter, with a gleaming orb shining overhead. Director E.G. Bailey has brought these varied elements together, sometimes showing the seams between the parts, but always bringing out the heart of the work.
Khephra's story is overly simplified. With our large immigrant communities, most Twin Cities audiences are familiar with the cycle of newly arrived families finding community and struggling to maintain their traditional identities and adhering to inviolable beliefs while fitting in to their new homes. The process of adjusting to massive cultural upheaval and restoring one's contact with their ancestral roots is far more complicated than depicted here. The show offers little new in terms of whys and wherefores. There are transitions that feel jarring, such as an abrupt jump into the Christmas songs, which seems to put the story on hold to pump up the (admittedly fine) entertainment.
But taken as a parable, Khephra: A Hip Hop Holiday Story offers a vision of the possibility of making restoring connections, of finding one's future through memory of one's past. The hip hop dances are the urbanized children of the African dances. The energy of hip hop poetry derives its force and elegance from the ancestral language. When Khephra finds herself, she is not a new person, but a renewed version of who she always was. The inner and the eternal outlast the storming external forces. That is the beauty, and power, and joy to be experienced in Khephra: A Hip Hop Holiday Story.
Khephra: A Hip Hop Holiday Story continues through December 10, 2017, at Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $15.00 general admission, $10.00 for seniors and students, $5.00 for children 12 and under. A limited number of $10 Economic Accessibility tickets are available online. For tickets and information go to openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6338.
Conceived and Written by: Sha Cage; Director: E.G. Bailey; Composer: Rico Mendez; Scenic Design: Ta-Coumba Aiken; Light Design: Mitchell Frazier; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Puppet and Prop Design: Michael Sommers; Khephra Doll created by: Susan Haas; Assistant Director: Daisuke Kamikaze; Stage Manager: Salima Seale; Production Coordinator: Sami Pfeffer.
Cast: Destiny Anderson (performer), Sha Cage (Khephra), William "Truthmaze" Harris (percussion), Rico Mendez (DJ and sound), Alissa Paris (performer), Jameia Pettiford (vocalist, Khephra's mother).