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'Caged Bird' called 'perfect vehicle' for Prime Stage Theater

| Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Kendall Arin Claxton (Young Maya), Linda Kanyarusoke (Maya), Denise Sheffey-Powell (Momma), Roxie Robinson (Mother Dear), and Michele Williams (Delores).
Laura Slovesko
Kendall Arin Claxton (Young Maya), Linda Kanyarusoke (Maya), Denise Sheffey-Powell (Momma), Roxie Robinson (Mother Dear), and Michele Williams (Delores).
Kendall Arin Claxton, who plays Young Maya.
Laura Slovesko
Kendall Arin Claxton, who plays Young Maya.

Maya Angelou's “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” published in 1969, describes the poet and writer's life between the ages of 3 and 16. Considered a seminal work in American literature, the memoir recounts how Angelou transcended the racism and prejudice of that era (between 1931 and 1946) and how she overcame those obstacles and became a strong young woman.

But does the memoir work as a play? Guy Johnson, Angelou's son, has yet to see the production, first staged in 2017 at the Book-It Repertory Theater in Seattle, and being produced by Prime Stage Theater at the New Hazlett Theatre on Pittsburgh's North Side starting with a preview performance March 9.

“But I'm very much in favor of it,” Johnson says, “because I think my mother had some important things to say in that book. It captured a part of black history and some of it has sort of faded away. … So I think this brings it all back for us.”

According to Wayne Brinda, founder and artistic director of Prime Stage, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is a perfect vehicle for the company, which attempts to engage middle and secondary school students.

“It seems like it's the right time to do this, with people looking for heroes and things that are positive,” Brinda says. “We're trying to do more than just plays; we're trying to do things that are going to make a difference in people's lives.”

Johnson thinks his mother would approve of the stage version, because she would want her work to live on. Of course, the script would have to be very good, he adds, but Angelou was intent on reaching many people because of her wish to bring people together through shared experiences.

“My mother used to say artists can speak in the language of men or they can speak in tongues,” Johnson says. “And if they speak in tongues, only God understands. When they speak in the language of men, then other people see someone has traveled the path that they've traveled, understood the pain that they've seen, and overcome the difficulties that they've confronted.”

Directed by Monteze Freeland, Prime Stage's set for the play will be spare. Brinda says that Freeland and set designer Clinton Mock are following the original production's template and concentrating on the story, with a nod toward one of Angelou's interests.

“Maya Angelou was a collector of quilts,” Brinda says. “There's a quilt she had in her house and (Freeland and Mock) designed the set around that multicolored quilt. It's very simple, with an ensemble cast, using a story-telling approach.”

And telling stories was the essence of Angelou's life. Johnson admits that when he was a kid, “I spent most of my time trying to ignore my mother.” But Angelou did not give up on her son, and Johnson believes that is a lesson worth sharing.

“I was not to be contained,” he says with a laugh, “but she was insistent. And she inserted herself in my life.”

Johnson adds that Angelou's fierce pride in her heritage influenced not only her children, but the culture at large.

“What people don't understand was that she was ahead of her time, Johnson adds. “She was a pioneer. When I was 10 in 1955, my mother wore African clothes, wore her hair natural, and was willing to tell anyone that Africa had a culture and a history equal to that of Europe.

“I remember when I was young I would actually shudder when she would say, ‘I am black,' because I was a victim of the insidiousness of racism as well. It was years later, when James Brown sang ‘I'm Black and I'm Proud,' there was a whole evolution of thinking. And she was part of that.”

Angelou's grandson and great-granddaughter, Elliott Jones and Caylin Johnson, will be in town opening weekend, to celebrate the famed writer's 90th birthday (she was born on April 4, 1928, and died in 2014). The two will be at the Barnes & Noble in Cranberry on March 10 to sign books and share memories. They will attend opening night of the show at 8 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience moderated by state Rep. Jake Wheatley.

On March 11, they will attend a 90th birthday celebration for Angelou in the lobby of the New Hazlett Theater prior to the 2:30 p.m. matinee.

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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