Representation has been an increasingly important theme in arts around the world lately.
Whether it's melanizing the lily white world of superhero universes (here's looking at you Black Panther) or shaking up the stale genre of rom coms (Crazy Rich Asians ruled the game this summer), groups that were previously left out of the cultural conversation have started to plow ahead with work by, of and for their own with nary a glimpse in the rearview mirror.
And what a great time that makes it to be a lover of the arts! Diversification only generates richer, deeper, more meaningful and interesting stories. I've been thrilled to discover so many new worlds and ideas that I never knew before over the last few years. The quality across the board has been increased such that it can be hard now to find something that *isn't* interesting or fresh, and that's a good problem for all of us to have.
The latest local piece in this fearless tradition is KHEPHRA: A Hip Hop Holiday Story, now showing at the CONN Theater. Created and anchored by local luminary Shá Cage, KHEPHRA tells the story of a young girl as she encounters celebrations from the many countries she lives in in West Africa and transitions to life in America in her teenage years. It's a side door entry into the world of a holiday show - you won't get your typical Christmas Carol or Grinch or Santa or manger moments here (although there are some remixed carols) - which I found totally refreshing and unique. Through puppetry, dance and music, Cage takes us on a tour through KHEPHRA's world and educates all of us on a vibrant blend of cultural traditions and experiences. A helpful insert in the program describes some of the West African terms, people, and songs sung throughout the show for those who are unfamiliar with the cultures presents.
A standout element is that this is clearly a family affair. We learn at the very beginning of the show that the concept for KHEPHRA came after Cage realized her kids were too young to see Christmas Carol and that they wouldn't relate to it anyway. Cage decided to create a show where they could feel seen and represented and hopefully have them perform with her once they were older. Her sons do indeed perform in this show, which is directed by Cage's husband. Cage displays an intimate, joyful familiarity with the two incredible dancers (Destiny Anderson and Johannah Easley) and musicians (Jamela Pettiford, William "Truthmaze" Harris, and Rico Mendez) also performing, and together they create a vivacious and joyful energy. The familial vibe on stage also creates a warm engagement with the audience, who is encouraged to sing along with the performers during the musical numbers and touch some of the West African artifacts Cage introduces throughout the show. I also thoroughly enjoyed the gorgeous abstract paintings in the scenic design by Ta-coumba Aiken that lend a simple but colorful and playful backdrop for the dynamic choreography.
I can't overstate how nice it is to see a plethora of innovative, unique, diverse, talented performers carving their own paths through the arts world these days. It's not easy to create something out of thin air, and much less make it something of quality. The vision Shá Cage demonstrates in KHEPHRA, the joyful atmosphere of the entire experience, and the example she sets for her children (and for all of us, honestly) is one I won't soon forget. If you're feeling down in the holiday dumps or just plain bored with the same ol', same ol' rotations of shows around this time of year, branch out and explore the lovely, cross-cultural world Cage has to offer here. I hope this becomes a holiday tradition of its own - a festivus for the rest of us if there ever was one. KHEPHRA only runs through December 23 (with shows twice a day), so make sure to click here to get your tickets ASAP.