With fearful trill of things unknown – a review of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

An adult Maya (Linda Kanyarusoke) reminisces about her strange and difficult journey growing up as an intellectual Black girl in the rural South in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

Young Maya (Kendall Arin Claxton) and her brother Bailey (Malic Williams) are deposited at the doorstep of her grandmother’s store in Stamps, Arkansas. Momma (Denise Sheffey-Powell) and Uncle Willie (Sam Lothard) raise the children as their own. One day, Maya and Bailey’s biological father (Maurice Redwood) cart the kids off to their birth mother, Mother Dear (Roxie Robinson) in St. Louis.

After a series of unfortunate events that would make Lemony Snicket cringe, Maya and Bailey end up back in Stamps, Arkansas with Momma and Big Willie. A few years later, she and her brother are sent off to Oakland, California to reunite with Mother Dear once again.

Actually, the plot isn’t important in this play. There really isn’t one. “Caged Bird” is a bunch of autobiographical stories strung together to give us a sense of the narrator; Marguerite Anne Johnson – the woman who becomes one of America’s best known poets – Maya Angelou.

“Caged Bird” is a series of lovingly crafted stories by the author and two playwrights who adapted the book for stage, Myra Platt and Malika Oyetimein.“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is compelling and lyrical as the poet herself.

After the tragic events in St. Louis, Maya spends a great deal of time finding her voice. When she does, she lifts that voice and sings, full of the hope the present has brought her.

Side note: The play contains an amazing rendition of the James Weldon Johnson’s “Negro National Anthem.”

Director Monteze Freeland has a strong cast and uses them wisely.

Claxton is effervescent, sparkling and joyous. She is brimming with the enthusiasm of the bright, energetic youth she portrays. Whereas Kanyarusoke is a thoughtful, logical, detached adult. It’s a clever juxtaposition. Kanyarusoke has a powerful presence, almost as much as Maya Angelou herself.

Lothard is charming as Uncle Willie and frightfully menacing when he plays Maya’s tormentor, Freeman.

Denise Sheffey-Powell, (Malic) Williams and Redwood are also charismatic, and Brenden Michael Peifer provides some much needed comic relief.

Britton Mauk’s set is simple but elegant. It’s a series of wooden panels in muted Easter egg tones; the faded turquoise of a robin’s egg to the pale, pink hues of a cumulus cloud at sunset. Even though Jason Via provides a few important props, the best set pieces are invisible. There’s a lot of good space work (miming) from the actors. The minimalism works well on the sparse stage, proving you don’t need a lot of props to convey action. There are, however, some beautiful costumes from Kim Brown.

Life hands Marguerite Anne Johnson some bitter lemons, but Maya Angelou makes sweet Southern tea with them, and it’s a joy to watch the transformation.

Note: Bring your winter coat. For some reason, the theater is ice, ice cold.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For more information, click here.


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