“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou’s early memoir adapted for the stage by Book-It, puts a harrowing and delightful story on its feet.
This September, Seattle is on a tear for James Baldwin. Earlier this month, The Williams Project staged a scorching production of his “Blues for Mister Charlie” at Emerald City Bible Fellowship and Franklin High School.
Now, Book-It Repertory Theatre is running an adaptation of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou — a 1969 memoir Baldwin (in cahoots with Angelou’s editor, Robert Loomis) challenged her to write as a piece of autobiography that was also a work of literature. In later years, Angelou said Baldwin had tricked her into writing “Caged Bird” by telling her editor to use reverse psychology — telling her the project was impossible. The editor, she said in a 2008 interview with NPR, “had talked to James Baldwin, my brother friend, and Jimmy told him that ‘if you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can’t do it.’ ”
‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’
Through Oct. 15, Book-It Repertory Theatre at The Center Theatre, Seattle Center, Seattle; $15-$50 (206-216-0833 or book-it.org).
The novel takes its name from a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem that poses a kind of mystery: “I know why the caged bird sings, ah me … It is not a carol of joy or glee … But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core … I know why the caged bird sings.”
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The play, adapted by locals Myra Platt and Malika Oyetimein, begins with grown-up Angelou (Brennie Tellu, who plays the character as both intimidatingly majestic and quick to crack a smile) walking onstage with a few props: a Bible, a deck of cards, a thesaurus, yellow notepads, a bottle of sherry. This became Angelou’s writing ritual: Go into a simple room (if it were in a hotel, she allegedly had the staff remove all pictures from the walls), drink, smoke, play solitaire, read the Bible and write.
Her writing through intense solitude — a solitude whose conditions she set for herself — allowed the harrowing “Caged Bird” to emerge.
Angelou’s first words to the audience: “What can we overcome? … What are you looking at me for?”
And then we’re off on the roller coaster into Angelou’s early life in Stamps, Mississippi, shuttling between church, school, the general store tended by her grandmother (Shaunyce Omar) and Uncle Willie (Ronnie Hill), St. Louis (where Angelou was sexually assaulted by her biological mother’s boyfriend) and back to Stamps.
Book-It’s “Caged Bird,” like the book itself, is plain-spoken poetry with the freeze-frame focus of a child’s mind. Comfortably holding hands with a friend and staring at the sky, noticing Uncle Willie trying to stand without his cane when fancy-seeming people come into the store, the chilling moment when “young Maya” (played with gleeful, grinning grace by Aishé Keita) is first molested and considers her mother’s boyfriend’s subsequent embrace to be “home … I knew he’d never let anything bad happen to me.”
In that moment, 8-year-old Maya made a heartbreaking miscalculation. His arms were not, and should never be, “home.” After the abuse escalated and she was shipped from St. Louis back to Mississippi, she was so traumatized that she didn’t allow herself to speak for nearly a year, keeping a small piece of chalk and chalkboard around her neck as her only means of communication.
The nine-person ensemble admirably shape-shifts across Angelou’s childhood memories: merry morning cotton-pickers passing by the Stamps store in the morning (who return as dejected, beaten-down laborers by the end of the day), Southern church people, fancy-clothes-wearing St. Louis city folks. All the actors are people of color and when ambassadors from the white world have to edge their way into the fringes of Angelou’s memories — a cop, a politician, a dentist — the actors play them wearing white gloves. It’s a subtle, but jolting, move by costume designer K.D. Schill. By the end of the first act, you know what someone in white gloves means: alien, cold, not bringing any good news.
But the frigidity of the white gloves melts in the face of the warm triumvirate of grown-up Angelou (Tellu, who acts as our narrator and guide), young Maya (Keita) and her boisterous older brother, Bailey (Chip Sherman). Young Maya and Bailey skip, joke and grit their teeth through the joys and horrors of their upbringing, while young Maya and grown-up Angelou flash big smiles at each other across the decades while they trade off details from their shared story.
Racism, poverty, sexual abuse, later-on sexual awakening, unwanted pregnancy — in her story, Angelou comes of age while her country and its culture shudder into a new era. One of her pivotal, beautiful rebellions: She gets hired as a kind of maid/servant/young-lady butler by a white woman from Texas. The employer decides her given name “Marguerite,” is too long, so renames her “Mary.” Young Maya promptly drops a soup tureen on the floor and walks out the door.
“If you are for the right thing you do it without thinking,” grown-up Angelou tells the audience shortly afterward. “We may encounter defeats, but we must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter defeat so we can know who the hell we are.”