You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. —Maya Angelou
Book-it Theater adapting I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings makes for the perfect marriage of form and content. The anecdotal nature of Maya Angelou’s memoir helps it become a perfect source for this troupe’s unique presentation of literary classics. Each separate scene of the autobiography builds upon the next until we have a complete dramatic portrait of a brave, rebellious and resilient black woman enduring and finally coming into her own.
The company first premiered an adaptation of Angelou’s book in 2003 that was written by Founding Co-Artistic Director Myra Platt. Now, to open the troupe’s 28th season, Platt has collaborated with Malika Oyetimein to create a brand new script. It is one of the most successful productions I have seen at Book-it. Oyetimein, who also directed the show, told her cast on the first day of rehearsal that this is a work filled with poetry, fire, love and pain. Oyetimein notes that Angelou was “someone who loved words very deeply. Therefore we are going to show love and care to her text…but we’re not going to be precious about anything because Dr. Maya Angelou wouldn’t want that.” There are moments of this production that are simply breathtaking as we follow the life of this inspirational woman from age three through the birth of her son.
Aishe Keita plays Young Maya acting out the different adventures described in the memoir. Brennie Tellu plays an older Maya and serves as a kind of chorus, narrating and commenting on the action, often adding insights an older and wiser Angelou inserted into her text. Both women’s speeches are filled with Angelou’s gorgeous poetic approach to the language. The play actually opens with both actresses reacting to the death of Dr. Martin Luther King and asking, “What can we overcome?” The next two hours go on to provide Angelou’s answer to that question.
Oyetimein’s cast provides some jaw dropping performances. Ronnie Hill plays the severely crippled Uncle Willie who at one point is forced to hide from white men’s wrath under a stack of potatoes. His pride and pain are palpable here. Hill also doubles as Mr. Freeman, Maya’s mother’s live-in boyfriend who initiated a pivotal trauma for Maya. Keita’s skillful acting shows the complexity of Maya’s deep longing for recognition and love while she is simultaneously being hurt and feeling responsible for her exploitation.
One of Maya’s crucial lifelines comes in the form of a cultured black woman. Mrs. Flowers (a talented Dedra D. Wood) takes Maya under her wings and teaches her to love the words of poetry. Maya learns that “to love poetry you must speak it.”
Shaunyce Omar plays Momma; this woman who was actually Maya’s grandmother, watched over Maya and her brother in their formative years. Omar perfectly portrays the no-nonsense guardian who lovingly enables young Maya and her brother to survive life during the hard scrabble Depression in tiny Stamps, Arkansas. A scene in which she angrily confronts a racist dentist becomes one of the dramatic highlights of the first act.
A high energy Chip Sherman takes on the role of Bailey, Maya’s brother. In a very moving scene, he asks his grandmother why whites hate us? He and Maya must confront “the enigma of hate never solved.” Angelou’s family and friends continue to soldier on in a world that so often seems bent on suppressing them.
Near the play’s conclusion we are told that if you ask a black man where he’s been, he’ll tell you where he’s going. Angelou’s memoir so skillfully brought to life here, allows us to witness just where this talented poet was headed and how she was able to get there.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings runs through October 15 at the Center Theatre at the Armory in the Seattle Center. For more ticket information call 206-216-0833 or go to www.Book-It.org.