They were tiny little kids they could put on a train from Southern California to rural Arkansas by themselves – Maya Angelou just 3, her big brother Bailey all 4. Each wore a bracelet on their wrist that said who they were and where they were going wanted and who would take care of them there.
It was the early 1930s, her parents separated, and the children moved to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson, in a town called Stamps, where she owned a general store.
“The store was my favorite place,” says adult Maya in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a new play adapted by Idris Goodwin and Janna Segal from Angelou’s memoir of the same name.
For almost a decade into her young life — long before she became a famous poet or received a Tony Award nomination for her role in a Broadway show running for one performance — it was a place where she was safe and loved became. And in Khalia Davis’ production for the New York City Children’s Theater, it’s where she returns, returning to this empty store and unfolding her memories as a monologue.
The Maya (Cherrye J. Davis) of this oversimplified play is in her forties, just like Angelou was when the book came out in 1969 and became a bestseller. In the decades since, it has been a frequent target for book banners — for its visceral depictions of everyday hatred and brutal violence in the viciously racist Jim Crow South, and for its candid discussion of rape and sexual abuse.
With these elements in mind, the New York City Children’s Theater recommends its Theater Row production for children ages 16 and older. Still, it’s a difficult piece to translate to the stage; While a book can be read privately and discarded at any time, in a play the audience cannot stop the action if it becomes too intense. There is also the challenge of faithfully telling a story that encompasses a great deal of pain – along with humor and joy and tender affection – without reducing it to a black trauma narrative.
In both script and direction, this 55-minute show feels frustrated by it all, its characters and incidents sketched too briefly to give it the vigor and weight it deserves.
There are vivid moments in Maya’s memories, like craning around the radio to hear boxer Joe Louis fight for a championship – the thrill of his victory to black listeners and the danger beneath: “It wouldn’t do for a black man and his family was caught on a lonely country road one night when Joe Louis proved we are the strongest people in the world.”
But the production and Davis’s performance have a hauntingly cheeky sheen that reads as condescending, while the script at times trims details to the point of dumbing down.
When Maya speaks of books’ revitalizing effect on her young self, she likens the escape they offered to “a chance to trade the southern bitter vermouth for a cup of mead or a hot cup of tea and milk.” In the memoir, Angelou’s words are “a cup of mead with Beowulf, or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist”. Can this really be too demanding for a teenage audience, especially when it comes to awakening a writer’s spirit?
The piece gently yet unmistakably evokes Maya’s rape at the age of 8 at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. But even there, the editing feels fake, condensing discrete episodes of sexual abuse in a way that acknowledges the child’s joy at being held by this man but omits mention of the physical pain he caused, which Angelou in the memoir as “Breaking in and entering when even the senses are torn apart.”
The cheerful outfit (by Rodrigo Hernandez Martinez) that the grown-up Maya wears and the lightness she has in her body give us the assurance from the start that even the worst of her childhood was ultimately safe for her. But by reducing rather than distilling her story, this piece never manages to convey a sense of her as a whole.
I know why the bird in the cage sings
Through June 5 at Theater Row, Manhattan; nycchildrenstheater.org. Running time: 55 minutes.