Book-It Repertory Reveals “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”

Book-It Repertory I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

In a celebration of the human spirit, Book-It Repertory Theatre opens its 28th Season with Maya Angelou’s poignant and heartwrenching memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

Directed by Malika Oyetimein, with an adaption by Founding Co-Artistic Director Myra Platt and Oyetimein, the production runs September 13th-October 15th. The adaptation recreates the memoir with a loving voice. “We are going to show love and care to her text,” Oyetimein emphasized, “but we’re not going to be precious about anything because Dr. Maya Angelou wouldn’t want that.”

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” chronicles Angelou’s life from age three through the birth of her son. Her memoir details the racism and abuse she endured during her harrowing childhood. That personal journey from desperation and agony to an indomitable human spirit became a platform for her message of renewal and hope. She became a symbol of strength overcoming struggle, by sharing her story.

Marguerite Annie Johnson  was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian, and Vivian, a nurse and card dealer. Angelou’s beloved, older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite “Maya,” derived from “My” or “Mya Sister.” Their parents’ marriage ended when Angelou was three and her brother four. At that time, their father sent them, alone by train, to live with their paternal grandmother.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings at Book-It

Aishé Keita (Young Maya) and Brennie Tellu (Maya). Photo by Chris Bennion

Angelou’s work focuses on growing up in her grandmother’s care in segregated Stamps, Arkansas. As an African American growing up in the Jim Crow South, she experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination. She also suffered at the hands of a family associate at age of eight. During a visit with her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Then, as vengeance for the sexual assault, Angelou’s uncles killed the boyfriend.

Traumatized by the experience, she was convinced that her voice had the power to kill. She stopped speaking and was mute for nearly five years until a woman named Flowers helped her regain her voice by introducing young Maya to works by William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. That was the beginning of her love for great literature, which was to influence her throughout her life.

Urged by her close friend, author/activist James Baldwin, she wrote ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”

As one literary critic described, “She challenged assumptions about what was possible for a poor black girl from the South, and she emerged as a figure of courage, honesty and grace.”

Angelou’s 1969 memoir made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. The book was also banned in many schools during that time, as Angelou’s honesty about having been sexually abused opened a subject matter that had long been taboo.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” has been translated into 17 languages, sold more than 1 million copies and still appears on high school and college reading lists.

Book-It Repertory Seattle

Brennie Tellu (Maya). Photo by Chris Bennion

Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, actress, dancer, teacher, and civil rights activist. She received dozens of awards including a Lincoln Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Literarian Award and received more than 50 honorary degrees. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on her birthday (April 4) in 1968, she stopped celebrating her birthday for years afterward. She sent flowers to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for more than 30 years, until Coretta’s death in 2006.

Angelou took her book’s title “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” from an 1899 poem, “Sympathy,” by African American author, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

In her own poem titled “Caged Bird,” Angelou describes a bird with clipped wings. Its feet have been tied, and it has been placed in a cage that prevents it from flying away. Despite its fear, the caged bird continues to sing of freedom. Angelou describes the joy that a free bird takes in soaring through the sky.

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

(Book-It’s cast includes Ronnie Hill as Uncle Willie/Freeman/Ensemble, Aishé Keita as Young Maya, Lamar Legend as Father/Ensemble, Shaunyce Omar as Momma/Ensemble, Chip Sherman as Bailey/Ensemble, Anthony Lee Simmons as Henry Reed/Ensemble, Lindsay Zae Summers as Dolores/Ensemble, Brennie Tellu as Maya, and Dedra D. Woods as Mother Dear/Mrs. Flowers.)

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” runs Wed-Sun, Sept 13-Oct. 15 at the Center Theatre at the Armory, tickets start at $26 with group rates available. $15 tickets will be available to students during the entire run.  Purchase at book-it.org or by calling the box office at 206.216.0833. The box office is open Tues through Fri, 12:00pm – 5:00pm (Tues – Sat during production run), located in the outer lobby of The Center Theatre at the Armory.

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Caged Bird  © 1983 by Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

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About Starla Smith

Starla Smith is a career journalist, writing features for such publications as The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily News, The Des Moines Register, Vibe and a prize-winning Gannett Newspaper. She helped launch Theater Week Magazine and eventually became its publisher. As a regular contributor to Playbill, her interviews and photos were featured in Playbill and Playbill-on-line. Smith was featured in the New York Times "Style" section for her "Word Portraits," specialized tributes, speeches, and presentation profiles. And she covered theater and features for City Search, Digital City, and the Tena Duberry WOW! Radio show. She previously served as astrology guru for Out Magazine, and she hastens to assure her readers that "Starla" is indeed her real name.

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