I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Aishé Keita (Young Maya) and Brennie Tellu (Maya). Photo by Chris Bennion

Book-It’s adaptation of Maya Angelou’s memoir

Maya Angelou’s writing is so lush it practically begs to be spoken aloud for the pleasure of rolling her words around in your mouth like a lemon drop, salivating from the sweet and recoiling from the tart. Hearing someone else speak her words is just as satisfying, so it’s a delight to find her 1969 autobiography, the undisputed masterpiece I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, back on the boards of Book-It Repertory Theatre.

First adapted by Book-It co-founder and co-artistic director Myra Platt for a 2003 production, this 2017 version of Caged Bird has been re-adapted by Platt and fast-rising director Malika Oyetimein. The talented cast includes Aishé Keita as Young Maya and Brennie Tellu as Maya, as well as Shaunyce Omar as her grandmother, called Momma.

From a dust-jacket-synopsis perspective, Caged Bird is simple. The book chronicles Angelou’s life and experiences from the time she was three, in the early 1930s, through the birth of her son, when she was 16. As Angelou unwraps her story, filled with trauma and racism, battles fought and joys discovered, she also explores the borders of the genre. Her memoir reads almost as fiction (Angelou had little interest in writing purely factual, step-by-step chronicles), filled to bursting with ripe imagery from her life: being sent to Stamps, Ark., to live with her grandmother, daily life as a poor Black child in the South, her time as the first Black female streetcar operator in San Francisco—a young woman forging an unshakeable identity.

One of the great pleasures of reading Angelou is that the plot is fascinating but almost incidental, the world painted so vividly that you wouldn’t care if nothing happened. “The lamplight in the Store gave a soft make-believe feeling to our world which made me want to whisper and walk about on tiptoe,” she writes of her grandmother’s shop. The emotional narrative is as rich as any novel’s. “To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Sept. 13 – Oct. 15

Center Theatre at the Armory

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