Kelley created the character Memori Brooks, a contemporary hair stylist with expertise in the specific needs of her African American clientele. Memori has a buoyant and chatty presence at the chair she rents in a beauty salon, keeping her customers engaged as she snips, twists, combs, braids, heats, and otherwise tends to their hair. Memori informs her customer, and all of us beyond the absent fourth wall, that she has access to a different life, one that will bring her back to her roots on Southern land willed to her family and recently revealed in the discovery of the long-lost will of the man who held her ancestors as chattel slaves. Yes, she plans to save up the money to pay the steep tax bill and reunite her family line with the land that was their due.
As Memori spins this dreamy plan, she draws upon the life force of those who preceded her, including the family matriarch who had her baby snatched away by Master Stroud, a young woman who sees the object of her love and desire, Fish Boy, who cannot swim, abandoned into the sea, and a well-mannered, optimistic young man on the brink of his life being forced to the ground, tazed and handcuffed by white police officers. Memori carries the spirit, the stories, and the trauma of the generations that brought her forth.
Sha Cage played Memori Brooks as well as bringing to life the ancestors whose struggles live within her. We imagine her client seated in the salon chair beneath the bib while Memori works on her hair, chatting all the while, at one point accidentally burning her with a hot comb, a minor injury for which Memori is very apologetic, but it could hardly be helped, distracted as she is by the stirring of generations within her. The fourth wall is often broken, with Memori addressing the audience as if we were attending a seminar on the rudiments of styling the tresses of African American women. She reacts to imagined questions and retorts shouted from the audience. Through this device, Memori reveals to us the traumas that were a legacy bestowed upon her, as assuredly as that land waiting for her to liberate from the tax assessor. She dares us to consider and respond. What would we do in her place? Can we even imagine the weight she carries as she snips, twists, combs and braids?
The role of Memori requires an exceptional actor who can shift instantaneously from lighthearted chair-side banter to despair over past and present injustices to jubilation at the prospect of regaining control of her families birthright, while also taking on the persona of a variety of characters, male and female, pinned to different points in Memori's long history. Sha Cage is such an exceptional actor, giving a pitch perfect performance that never flagged in its feeling or its coherence as visions of Memori's people sprung to life and retreated back into memory, where they may lie dormant but are never extinguished. Cage was "on" for the entirety of the one-act's roughly 75 minutes, seamlessly releasing the words, gestures, and actions that make Memori's continuous narrative feel not so much a monologue as a journey, through time as well as through the recesses of her heart and soul. It was a sublime performance.
Director Chris Berry gave Cage the guidance to maintain the momentum needed for Re-Memori to be effective, making use of the full stage to bring breadth to the production. Berry intertwined the design elements that created a sense of Memori's journey through her traumas and her hopes as apart from the reality of her daily grind, particularly the shimmery wall panels (Mina Kinukawa was the scene designer) that resembled crunched up aluminum foil, the foils that may be used in setting hair, but also created the sense of an encapsulated life, hurling on its own trajectory.
Deja Collins' projections upon these crinkled surfaces subtly invoked the haziness of the past, as Memori reconstructed the sources of pain that were her daily companion, while Latrice Lovett's lighting design further embellished the physical production. Gregory Horton's costumes served well, allowing Memori to easily slip in and out of antebellum modes, while Gregory Robinson's sound design provided a mix of music and other aural cues to the narrative. Patricia Brown provided choreography that, as presented by Cage, appeared to be an unconscious physical expression of Memori's lifeforce.
It took a little while in the early going to put together the pieces of Memori's narrative, and to discern how each of the people she brought to the forefront of her mind fit within her journey, but Cage was such a galvanizing performer, one could not help but be drawn in and, in due time, the work congealed into a coherent through-flowing journey reaching back to slavery and moving forward toward a hopeful, but unknown future. The play left me with hope as Memori enjoined herself to swim against the currents, the survival skill Fish Boy lacked but that she was determined to claim for herself.
Re-Memori is a high caliber play, likely to pop up at other theatre companies, and hopefully performed by an actor with the magnificent grace and grit Sha Cage brought to Penumbra's production. Be on the lookout.
Re-Memori ran October 12 through November 5, 2023, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. For information on Penumbra, please call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.
Playwright: Nambi E. Kelley; Director: Chris Berry; Scenic Designer: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Designer: Gregory Horton; Lighting Designer: Latrice Lovett; Sound Designer: Gregory Robinson; Properties Designer: Abbee Warmboe; Projections Designer: Deja Collins; Assistant Projections Designer: Jerry Hsiao; Dramaturg: Margo Skornia; Choreographer: Patricia Brown; Stage Manager: Jiccarra N. Hollman; Assistant Stage Manager: Zhané Jackson.
Cast: Sha Cage (Memori Brooks), Comfort Dolo (Memori Brooks at select performances)