Even though she passed away in 2014, author and poet Maya Angelou still has things to say and people to impact. The simple fact is this: people still want to hear her.
That was the mindset of the audience who went to see the premiere of the stage production of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” March 10, at New Hazlett Theater.
The production, presented by Prime Stage Theatre, is based on the book by Angelou and adapted for the stage by Myra Platt and Malika Oyetimein. The show is directed by Monteze Freeland and will run at New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square, through March 18.
Among those watching the March 10 premiere were some of Angelou’s family members—Elliott Jones, her grandson, and Caylin Johnson, her great-granddaughter.
“What she taught me for my life is that you have to have courage,” Jones told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview. “If you want something bad enough you have to really want it, and then you have to be ready to receive it because it’s going to come. She spurned me to action; more walk, less talk and I take that with me every day.”
Jones serves as the Director of Community Engagement of his grandmother’s foundation. He administers the annual Annie Willie Scholarship Fund, which is awarded to students with disabilities who attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Annie Willie Scholarship is currently the primary function of the Maya Angelou Foundation.
“My great-grandmother died when I was 16 years old and the majority of the time I spent with her was at Thanksgiving, Fourth of July or Easter,” Johnson recalled. “She used to come to my dance recitals and come to my school and read, so we did get to spend some quality time together. She taught me how to make her homemade ice tea and I cherish those moments. I miss her a lot.
“One day she decided to surprise me at my violin recital and my classmates and I were performing at Barnes & Noble. She thought no one would recognize her if she had on this big hat and sunglasses but she pulled up in her tour bus—with Maya written on the back of it—and she came in and sat in the front. Everyone’s attention went from us to her and I was like ‘OK.’ It was funny because she didn’t understand and she was there for me. I appreciated her, it was just funny,” Johnson said.
When she wasn’t writing, Jones and Johnson said Angelou religiously watched Country Music Television (CMT) and enjoyed cooking.
The book “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is the autobiographical memoir of Marguerite Annie Johnson Angelou, and the prejudices she faced as a Black girl growing up in the segregated southern United States.
“I know the book verbatim so seeing that (play) in a different perspective and a different way showed that since she’s not here anymore, we have to interpret her in our own way now,” explained Johnson, now a sophomore at Spellman College. “I’m really proud of how this turned out. They did this well.”
It starred Kendall Arin Claxton, who portrayed a young Maya; Linda Kanyarusoke as adult Maya; Sam Lohard as the big-hearted Uncle Willie; Brenden Michael Peifer as the charismatic Henry Reed; Maurice Redwood as Maya’s often-absent father; Roxie Robinson as Maya’s loving mother; Maya’s grandmother “Momma” was played by Denise Sheffey-Powell; Maya’s loving and protective brother Bailey was played by Malic Williams; and Delores was played by Michele Renee Williams.
“They gave a real sense of who these people were. My grandmother’s brother’s name was Bailey and the actor who portrayed him even had some of his mannerisms. This was great,” Jones said. “We’re so glad we were here to see this.”
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