The N-Word on Stage

“How many of you have ever used the n-word?” asked Shá Cage at the informal talkback after her show to which a few people raised their hands. “How many of you have never used the n-word?” asked Cage and the majority of people huddled together in the lobby of Intermedia Arts raised their hands (including myself). “Okay, so all of the white people and a few people of color,” she tabulated and the audience laughed. I must confess though, I have said the n-word. Never to a person and never about a person, but I know I’ve said it.

N.I.G.G.E.R, a production of Intermedia Arts and Freestyle Theatre March 7–13, 2013, weaves together multiple intersecting narratives. Nearly ten characters share their opinions of the n-word either in direct address or by telling a story of a time they were called the n-word. Cage brought each one to life with a nuance that speaks to her masterful skill as a performer. The stories are supported by movement/dance pieces, spoken word, and a shadow puppetry show about the etymology of the n-word and other slurs. Betraying what audiences might expect from a “solo work,” Cage isn’t telling one woman’s story, but rather the stories of a community in relationship to a word fraught with many meanings. While the multitude of stories provide a textured landscape for the performance, it is difficult to piece all of its many parts together into a coherent frame.

The closest thing to a through line in N.I.G.G.E.R. is the story of a little girl and her doll. In the first scene with the girl, early in the performance, Cage sits on the floor with her legs together and extended, her feet forming a chair for her white doll. Her best friend, she endearingly entrusts the doll with her feelings and the interaction that follows is heartbreaking. Through the one-sided conversation of a girl with her doll we are made aware of an incident where the little girl was verbally attacked by a group of kids and her friend, the doll, failed to defend her, leaving the girl in tears. Towards the end of the performance, we see the little girl again, but this time she is talking to a new doll, a black doll. She seems content with her new friend and hopeful about their upcoming adventures.

Shá Cage (foreground) and Alissa Parks (background)
performing in N.I.G.G.E.R. Photo courtesy of E.G. Bailey

In between this very loose frame, we witness a boxing match where a microphoned voice bombards Cage and the audience with different kinds of niggers: from the “mocha-caramel niggers” to the “always forgetting your wallet niggers” to the “I’m not a nigger niggers,” while Cage is center stage in a mimed boxing match. In the talkback she attributed her choreographer, Leah Nelson, with the idea of the boxing metaphor where Cage decides during the scene which words hit her. The effect is exhausting. It is exhausting to watch Cage physically fight the verbal phantasms, and it is exhausting to hear so many n-words in rapid succession.

The boxing match transitions into a listing of names of those who have fallen due to racially motivated acts of violence. Among the names is Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. The names are recited in a slower tempo than all of the n-words, but there is no respite. As I was writing this article, I heard news of Kimani Gray, a sixteen-year-old black high school student in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who was shot to death by police on March 9, 2013, and I couldn’t help but remember this sequence of the show. The news of Kimani Gray speaks alarmingly to the tragic relevance of N.I.G.G.E.R.

Betraying what audiences might expect from a “solo work,” Cage isn’t telling one woman’s story, but rather the stories of a community in relationship to a word fraught with many meanings.

An audience member in the talkback asked the ever important question, “Why this play? Now? Here?” Cage admitted that she didn’t make this piece with the now in mind but had been working on this piece for three years. N.I.G.G.E.R. continues to change with each performance, and she is planning to take this show to England where it will transform even more. The truth of the matter is that this show is timely because no matter how often the phrase “post-racial America” is circulated we need to remind ourselves that slavery was abolished a mere 148 years ago, and to paraphrase the comedian Louis C.K., that’s two seventy-four-year-old grandmothers back-to-back. Also, lest we forget, it was only this past February that Mississippi finally ratified the thirteenth amendment, outlawing slavery.

During the talkback Cage asked a question that’s been resonating with me for days. How do we begin to enter a conversation about racism and the politics of skin with our children? I don’t know the answer, but think how we have that conversation offers immense possibility and hope for the future.

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N word? Oh you NIGGA! there are various types--dumb niggas, smart nigggas, crazy niggas, rich niggas, poor ass niggas and talented niggas and a whole slew of niggas bringing up the rear. As long as we live in America, we will be Niggas...

and if you were lucky enough to see Sha's show, you would have experienced her quite blatant yet nuanced way of how we - us colored folks - embrace, reject, honor, damn and USE the word. And we are in America, which sends out the power of the word to the world... do we attempt to change it or accept it? Just asking .. its always troubling.

I don't know *how* we do it, but we do it early—before they've noticed it elsewhere and before they've had a chance to internalize it as normal and therefore either okay or unchangeable—and we do it often until thinking about making it change is part of their way of life. When you tell kids some people used to own other people, they are appalled. When you mention their great great grandchildren are still suffering as a result, they want to know how and then they want to do something about it.

Thanks for this thoughtful rumination. Words in real are one thing, but words on stage are another. I remember performing in ALOHA SAY THE PRETTY GIRL a few years ago and our company having a discussion about the use of "retarded" on stage, particularly in light of being housed in an art center that taught classes for people with developmental disabilities. Those are two completely different word culture issues, but I had never much thought about the power of "hot" words on stage before. The confrontation of them in a performative way can be so transformative for performer and audience.

But also thanks for showcasing the work of the great Shá Cage. She is such a force in American theater.

just the beginning - again- of this conversation/confrontation.. The danger and discomfort of talking, sharing, spitting about race continues. and this word which contains anger,pain, comfort, humor and love is always in the forefront. Please do not dismiss the power as so often happens in these dissections. Subsuming it into another discourse serves no purpose. There is no single answer, just let the conversation begin - as it has with Mr. Garza's prompt.