Joy to the World: Shá Cage energizes audiences with holiday spirit in 'Khephra'

Mark Vancleave

Mark Vancleave

If you’re tired of predictable family fare, you’ll welcome Shá Cage’s Khephra. As the young title character emigrates from Africa to Minnesota, you won’t be able to predict what turns her adventures will take.

The new “hip hop holiday story,” now onstage at Open Eye Figure Theatre under the direction of E.G. Bailey, was written by Cage, who also stars as Khephra. The episodic play has the feeling of a work in progress, with some head-spinning shifts in tone. However, Khephra encompasses so much accomplished art and celebrates such genuine joy that it’s impossible not to feel warmed and inspired.

The show, which runs about an hour once it gets going, follows Khephra from her childhood in West Africa through her adolescence in Minnesota. At first, she’s often represented by a small figure Cage holds; later, Cage plays the role at full scale and the doll occasionally reappears as a reminder of Khephra’s past.

The first section is built on storytelling and puppetry. With the aid of exuberant castmates Destiny Anderson and Alissa Paris, Cage tells two tales: one about a lazy bug and the other about a can-do critter. The stories are entertaining, and suggest morals from which Khephra might be able to take inspiration as she travels to America.

The journey comes after a sudden sadness, and Khephra arrives in Minnesota to discover that it’s Christmastime. The house lights come up, and vocalist Jamela Pettiford jumps onstage to lead the audience in not one, not two, but three celebratory singalongs.

In the play’s final section, Khephra sets out to prove herself as a worthy peer of her new neighborhood’s B-girls, while her mother (Pettiford) worries about whether the teen’s African identity is slipping away. By show’s end, everyone’s singing and clapping to a hip-hop “Silent Night.”

The show’s varied structure puts many of Cage’s gifts to work: She’s a writer, she’s an actor, she’s a storyteller. She’s also a convener, and there’s an incredible amount of talent involved with this production.

Rico Mendez offers a soundscape and beats, while William “Truthmaze” Harris handles drum duties and beat-boxing. Ta-coumba Aiken contributes painted backdrops that lend a sense of depth to Open Eye’s cozy stage; the script incorporates poetry and lyrics by Anderson, Ibe Kaba, Desdamona, and See More Perspective.

There are some bumpy transitions, and the extended singalongs could be trimmed (perhaps sensing this, on Friday night the performers skipped a few verses of an Africanized “Twelve Days of Christmas”). That said, this is a generously conceived and hugely openhearted show that, in approaching the holidays from an African newcomer’s perspective, serves as a welcome addition to the Euro-centric holiday entertainments that fill so many other stages and screens.

Khephra: A Hip Hop Holiday Story
Open Eye Figure Theatre
506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis
612-874-6338; through December 9