Aishe Keita portrays young Maya in Book-It Repertory Theatre's new adaptation of Maya Angelou's 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' playing through Oct. 15 at the Center Theatre at the Armory. Photo by John Ullman
Aishe Keita portrays young Maya in Book-It Repertory Theatre's new adaptation of Maya Angelou's 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' playing through Oct. 15 at the Center Theatre at the Armory. Photo by John Ullman

Seldom are there moments in the theaters that touch so deeply, you will never forget them. Book-It Repertory Theatre’s new adaptation of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is such a one.

Directed by Malika Oyetimein, with an adaption by Founding Co-Artistic Director Myra Platt and Oyetimein, the beautiful adaptation recreates Angelou’s memoir on stage with a loving but heartwrenching voice.

This compelling stage version of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” chronicles Angelou’s life from age three through the birth of her son when she was 16: The racism and abuse she endured during her harrowing childhood, her personal journey from desperation and despair to courage and hope, her indomitable human spirit of renewal and triumph.

The human spirit can endure quite a lot. But along with the impact of racial taunts and physical abuse comes the pain of self-doubt and unworthiness. Angelou’s story has been an inspiration to millions. Given the current climate of racism and violence in our country, the greatest tragedy of all is that African Americans are still enduring such treatment.

It is one thing to read about it, and quite another to have it unfold on stage in front of you.

Two different actresses portray Maya Angelou. Aishé Keita as young Maya from age three to 17, and Brennie Tellu as older, mature Maya, who narrates Angelou’s saga and sometimes converses with Keita, her younger self.

As older Maya, Tellu greets the audience with these words: “What are you looking at me for?”

This writer’s heart wanted to reassure her, “Because you are beautiful.” The audience could sense the unspoken words of unhappiness, abandonment, and her enduring feeling of displacement. 

When their parents divorced, three-year-old Maya and her beloved, four-year-old brother Bailey are shipped like baggage from California to live with their paternal grandmother in segregated Stamps, Arkansas. Shaunyce Omar captures Momma’s pride, strength, and devout faith, but even Momma can’t protect Maya from the racial prejudices and discrimination of the Jim Crow South. But Momma does take on a racist dentist and put in him his place,

Self-conscious Maya is an awkward, gangly, young girl who’s convinced she is ugly, because others don’t hesitate to say so in front of her. She is also quite sensitive. Maya feels the hurt as she watches her kind, crippled Uncle Willie try to stand without his cane when fancy folks come to Momma’s store, its rustic, deep South setting designed by Christopher Mumaw.

Uncle Willie must also bear the humiliation of being forced to hide under a pile of potatoes and stinky onions to escape a witch hunt by Klan racists hunting a black man who dared to look at a white woman.  

Seven members of the superb all-black cast of nine double up on roles as well as other ensemble parts, including white characters. Ronnie Hill portrays Uncle Willie with poignancy and understanding, and then later in the production, he becomes the despicable Mr. Freeman, Maya’s real mother’s boyfriend. Chip Sherman portrays Maya’s beloved brother Bailey, a performances that spans four years to 18 years.

Dedra D. Woods portrays Maya’s real mother, Mother Dear, as well as the upstanding Mrs. Flowers, one of young Maya’s teachers, who introduces her to the classics and poetry. Lamar Legend plays the role of Maya’s shifty father, and Lindsay Zae Summers as his jealous girlfriend, Delores. Anthony Lee Simmons, as Henry Reed, delivers the eloquent, black pride, eighth-grade valedictorian address.

When white characters are introduced, the black actors playing them don head-to-toe white, including gloves and hat, the inspiration of costume designer K.D. Schill.

[Trigger warning (and spoiler): sexual assault] During Maya and Bailey’s trip to St. Louis to visit with Mother Dear, her boyfriend, the despicable Freeman, rapes naïve, eight-year-old Maya, threatening to kill Bailey if she tells anyone. This is a devastating and difficult scene to watch, but director Oyetemin stages it with sensitivity and care. (Angelou’s 1969 memoir was banned in many schools during that time, as her  honesty about being sexually abused opened a subject matter that had long been taboo.)

After Freeman is convicted, he suddenly turns up dead, an act of vengeance by Maya’s uncles. But the traumatized Maya blames herself and stops speaking, convinced her voice has the power to kill.

So it’s back to Arkansas for Maya and Bailey. 

The two siblings spend their early life being shipped around — from Los Angles to Arkansas, to St. Louis, back to Arkansas, and on to San Francisco, where Angelou begins to discover herself.

From that gawky young girl, she emerges as a beautiful woman whose dignity and powerful persona inspires millions. She went on to become one of America’s most respected authors, as well as a celebrated poet and activist. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” remained on the New York Time bestseller list for two years.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on her birthday (April 4) in 1968, she stopped celebrating her birthday. And for more than 30 years, she sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, until Coretta’s death in 2006.

Marguerite Annie Johnson Angelou herself passed on May 28, 2014 at the age of 85.  But her legacy lives on. She believed that, “love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

She took her memoir’s title “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” from an 1899 poem, “Sympathy,” by African American author, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

In her own poem entitled “Caged Bird,” Angelou describes a bird with clipped wings. Its feet have been tied, and it has been placed in a cage that prevents it from flying away. Despite its fear, the caged bird continues to sing.

Even a caged bird can create a sound of beauty. Even a caged bird can still sing a melody of hope and a dream of freedom. Even a caged bird can sing its heart out until the caged door opens, and the bird can soar through the sky to the heavens.
As this critic reflects on these words and the powerful two hours of theater, I have but one criticism. If only the production would have been longer!

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” runs Wed-Sun, Sept 13-Oct. 15 at the Center Theatre at the Armory (305 Harrison St.), tickets start at $26 with group rates available. $15 tickets will be available to students during the entire run. Purchase tickets at book-it.org or by calling the box office at 206.216.0833. The box office is open Tuesday through Friday, noon – 5 p.m, (Tuesday – Saturday during production run), located in the outer lobby of The Center Theatre at the Armory.