Sometimes when you've been captured by an extraordinary work, you find yourself smiling unawares and unguardedly expressive. Your laughter starts out as bird-like chirps before turning into longer bits of song. Then the story turns, and as that joy gives way to tears, you become undone, a burbling baby grateful in the arms of some generous spirit.

Such is the journey — and the gift — of "Re-Memori," Nambi E. Kelley one-act that premiered Thursday in St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre. Her script, about a hairdresser named Memori Brooks whose work brings out her clients' beauty while also helping them heal, is lyrical and layered. Rhymes give way to subtle wordplay as the witty, heart-tugging action takes us into ancestral memories.

The drama is getting a tour-de-force performance by Shá Cage, who plays all the characters. As the bold, sassy embodiment of joy and pain, Cage delivers a study in brilliance.

Pacing the stage, directly addressing the audience as potential clients, she carries us deep into her history, rife as it is with scars physical and psychic. Yet she is unbowed by what has happened. As Memori tells us, all of what has happened has happened. We've got to live.

In "Re-Memori," Brooks wakes up in her beauty shop chair shaken by yet another insistent dream. There's unresolved business in her family bloodline, and things that ancestors need her to know. One of her dream visitors is an enslaved teenager who has given birth to a baby after the man who legally owned her has died. Mr. Stroud did not mention the baby in his will. Is this child free?

Memori also flashes back to Memphis 1968 where an injured sanitation worker is pining for love and fair wages as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is about to make his fateful visit to support his striking brethren.

And there's a present-day young man, a New York hipster adjusting his cap as he slings rhymes and spits game to court a young woman.

Kelley said that these characters are based on family history, which makes the piece even more impressive. "Re-Memori" is not overstuffed with extraneous details or burdened by the need to serve history. Instead, and as staged by Penumbra's new arts director Chris Berry, it's taut and powerful.

At first, I feared for Berry's direction. Cage comes out onstage with the sass of someone on a sitcom. We have been trained by TV not to take the quick steps and jocularity too seriously. It's usually all for laughs. That movement language gets reclaimed as the show goes deeper.

The set, by Mina Kinukawa, consists of three circular pedestals that, with a change in lighting and costumes, represent the different realms of the story. The memories come in blue and other cool hues while the present is warm tangerine. The backdrop consists of shimmery metallic panels that look a little cheap even as they reference the aluminum foil beauticians use to set hair.

Cage switches briskly among these elements, taking us clearly from one realm to the other. There's not a false note in a performance that matches the poetry of Kelley's extraordinary script.

I was not old enough to be at certain legendary world premieres that helped reshape American theater. Think Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf" or "A Chorus Line." "Re-Memori" feels like such an occasion. This powerful, rich play must be savored again and again.

Who: By Nambi E. Kelley. Directed by Chris Berry.
Where: Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 4 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 5.
Tickets: $45. 651-224-3180 or