Like a lot of us, Shá Cage often takes work home. The Twin Cities actor likes researching her characters, getting into their skin, sometimes practicing around the house. Still, she tries to shield her two young sons and her husband, the actor, director and playwright E.G. Bailey, from any negative fallout.
Lately, Cage has been struggling with what it means to go to war. Cage plays a fighter pilot in Frank Theatre’s production of George Brant’s “Grounded.” The new, much-produced solo show, which opens Friday at Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, centers on an Air Force pilot who gets pregnant, decides to have the child and, after returning to duty, pilots drones remotely from a trailer in the Nevada desert. She hunts an Osama bin Laden-like figure 8,000 miles away.
“In the past, people would go to war and come home on leave once or twice a year,” said Cage. “But my character, she’s going to war in the morning and coming home to family that same day. There’s no space there for decompression. And even though she has clarity about the bad guys she has to bomb, it’s tough. These drone pilots suffer the same PTSD as those in the war zones.”
Showing that mental challenge was one of the aims the playwright set out to show.
“We think of drone pilots being very safe, like playing video games at home,” said Brant, who lives in Cleveland. “But the fact is, operating drones can cause serious mental damage, and on the same scale as those involved in quote-unquote, actual war.”
Brant did not initially intend to write a solo show with “Grounded,” four years ago.
“I wanted to get at the home-war contrast, but was stuck,” he said. “Then, when I first thought of one person doing it, I got a rush of ideas. With one person, you could be home or move forward three years with just a word. The play gets to move at its own intense speed in a way that would be harder with many people onstage.”
The play premiered in 2012 and has been staged in England and Australia, where a national tour is planned. There are some 15 productions this season in the United States, almost unheard of for a non-Broadway work.
Latest daunting role
Brant has visited the Twin Cities for rehearsals of “Grounded,” and has been pleased with Cage, the first African-American to play the role.
“I don’t know why” no black actor has been cast in the role, said director Wendy Knox, who is working with Cage for the fourth time. “Shá is a phenomenal performer.”
Knox, known for choosing tough subjects, directed Cage in the most daunting roles of her career. Let’s see: There was the title character in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus,” a play inspired by the real life of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, a South African woman with a prodigious behind who was exhibited in 19th-century European freak shows as the “Hottentot Venus.”
“To be humiliated like that every day was very hard,” Cage said.
Cage also starred in “F—ing A,” Parks’ reworking of “The Scarlet Letter,” and in Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed,” where she played the leader of a group of women being held as concubines and sex slaves by a West African warlord.
“She’s really smart, and she works like a dog,” Knox said. “It’s fun to see how she takes whatever we discuss in rehearsal, chews it up and makes it her own.“
Born in Lansing, Mich., Cage grew up in Natchez, Miss., until she was 15, when her mother, recently divorced, moved her three children to the Twin Cities.
After graduating from Washburn High School in Minneapolis, Cage enrolled at Macalester College in St. Paul, intending to study communications. But then she linked up with a group of African and Caribbean women to form a performance troupe called Sisters in Struggle. They added their own works to those of writers including Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Ntozake Shange.
“We gained some notice, notoriety, and that opened doors off-campus,” Cage said. “We did a little tour of D.C. and Philly. It was small-scale, but it excited me to use theater to talk about issues that we were dealing with as women, as women of color.”
Roles at Pangea, Penumbra
After graduation, she still was not sure that theater would be her future, but she was cast in two significant shows.
Pangea World Theater’s “The Conference of the Birds” was her first professional gig. The second show sealed it. It was Shange’s “for colored girls who’ve considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf,” directed by Kym Moore at Penumbra Theatre. Cage played a famous abortion scene.
“What I remember most about Shá is her incredible generosity of spirit and fearlessness as an actor,” said Moore, now a professor of theater at Brown University. “The real prowess of an actor can be seen in their ability to remain vulnerable in a scene despite any fear or resistance they might have to the moment. Performing that abortion monologue in a bath tub with her legs thrown over the side was pretty intense for all of us in the room. She handled the moment with an astonishing degree of grace and warmth.”
“Colored girls” created lasting bonds among the cast members, including Aimee K. Bryant, Sun Mee Chomet, Signe V. Harriday and Jeany Park. Some of them formed a troupe, Mama Mosaic.
“That experience empowered me, and showed me that we could be a force,” Cage said. “I think that’s what I try to do in my work, to empower women, especially women of color, to see their own light.”
The pilot is a character who likes to be “up in the blue,” she said. “I love her clarity, and wish that I could be more like her.”