Book-It Repertory Theatre presents “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

For this, Book-It’s second stage adaptation of Maya Angelou’s highly lauded autobiographical work, the theatre has brought together a talented cast under the direction of Malika Oyetimein. Ms. Oyetimen also co-adapted the play with Myra Platt, Book-It’s co-artistic director.

The story plays out on Christopher Mumaw’s minimalist stage where a few risers, a few props, and a bare floor are all that are needed. The actors and their words have power enough. I think most of us know the author and her story. Angelou grew up during the Great Depression in the segregated South. Needless to say, she was poor, deprived, and demeaned.

Somehow she persevered in conditions that could be likened to hell on earth. Her world included Klu Klux Klan raids, poverty, sexual assault, and the terror of walking in the white part of town. One would like to think it was a unique hell, but it wasn’t. Others suffered, and in Angelou’s writings she speaks for all of them and more: for victims of prejudice, for the poverty stricken, for vulnerable women, for those who live in endless pain or humiliation. It’s all captured in Book-It’s production.

Aishé Keita as young Maya and Brennie Tellu as grown Maya demonstrate so well the price of living with cruelty, yet they show also that the human spirit can rise above the most oppressive conditions. In one scene a group of family and neighbors gather by the radio to listen to the 1937 championship-boxing match in which the black Joe Lewis defeated his white rival. Their elation and sense of vindication, their pride and the dignity that came with it is palpable. It was going to be a long time until the country had a black president, but the Joe Lewis victory was indeed a milestone that brought self-respect to lives that were more likely to be demeaned.

So little else in Angelou’s early life offers self-respect. Her parents are more concerned with their own lives than with hers. She is thrust from one house to another, never gets the unequivocal love that every child needs. The production captures so well her personal victory. She perseveres—through pain, humiliation, physical and mental abuse—and she triumphs. Book-It’s production captures her victories.

Through Oct. 15 at Book-It Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre in the Seattle Center Armory, 206-216-0833 or boxoffice@book-it.org.

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