“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…