I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

caged_birdPrime Stage Theatre’s production of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings previewed on Friday, March 9, 2018 and opened on Saturday, March 10, 2018. I had the pleasure of attending the preview performance, and am happy to report this is a fine, engaging production.

As an adaptation of Dr. Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, it is impossible to talk about the play without talking about the book. Adapted for the stage by Myra Platt and Malika Oyetimein for Book-It Repertory Theater, the play is meticulously faithful to the book, transposing the text almost word-for-word into the script. This is made possible by Dr. Angelou herself, who writes with the rhythm and inflection of a poet who understands what it is to read her poetry out loud, and whose depictions of scenes from her youth are done with such theatrical flair, such attention to character, mood, and dialogue that one already half believes she is reading a play while reading the autobiography.

But while the play is faithful to the autobiography, it lacks the same sense of underlying anger and sense of isolation that permeate the book. Dr. Angelou is a little less charitable in her depiction of the people in her life, a little more frank in her examination of her experiences than the play, which tends to take the edge away from Angelou’s words. It rounds out the sharp corners, shies away from certain phrases, and eliminates some of the less flattering aspects of its primary characters. This doesn’t make it a bad adaptation – again, every word of the play comes from the book – but it does soften the emotional impact. And since both the book and the play end abruptly after the birth of  Angelou’s son, the experience is somewhat unsatisfying and begs for a more complete picture of Angelou’s life (more especially for the play, since the reader can go get the next in the series of Angelou’s autobiographies).

Stage director Monteze Freeland showed himself to be a master of the material and the medium. His vision was clear while ensuring Angelou’s voice remained the primary force propelling the production forward. He kept the storytelling well paced and his ensemble on point.

The nine-member ensemble worked as a single unit with the sole goal of serving Maya Angelou’s story. The cast’s solidarity shone through their performances. Kendell Arin Claxton was a radiant Young Maya; as the central figure of the work, Ms. Claxton carried the weight of the production with ease and energy. Linda Kanyarusoke as Adult Maya embodied the solid, upright presence of Maya Angelou without pretense or affectation. Dennis Sheffey-Powell brought her signature powerful presence to her performance of Momma and Grandmother Baxter. Sam Lothard took on the task of playing the difficult characters of Uncle Willie and Mr. Freeman with bravery and commitment. Malic Williams showed off his fine character-acting chops with Bailey and the best “old white lady” I’ve ever seen. Michele Renee Williams’s vocal performance shone during the musical moments. Maurice Redwood was exactly the charismatic, schmarmy Father he needed to be.

Performances were in general well crafted, though there were moments of over-acting, which made for a slightly uneven overall experience. And I must, unfortunately, call out the truly terrible Irish accent used by one ensemble member.

Scenic designer Britton Mauk created a beautiful unit set perfectly suited to the production. It quietly created a space that could encompass multiple locations and generations, supporting the vision of the play, while existing as a stand-alone piece of art. The set evoked clapboard houses, mid-century geometric paintings, and three-dimensional puzzle pieces for me, on top of echoes of the quilt that originally inspired the design. My only complaint – I don’t think there needed to be any changes in the configuration of the step units during the action of the play. These changes became somewhat distracting as the performance progressed.

The work of costume designer Kim Brown was solid. Costumes were realistic, simple and evocative of the time period between 1931 and 1947, and they met the challenge of helping each actor move from one character to another quickly and simply. I would have liked a different costume for Young Maya for the Second Act. In that act, Maya matures from around 13 to 17, and finally ends up a young, single mother. But the costume chosen for the actress didn’t allow for any visual sense of Maya’s aging or maturing.

J.R. Shaw’s lighting design was impeccable. His choices completed the design palette, complimented the tone, and contributed to a harmonious whole.

Music had a strong place in the production, as it did in the early life of Dr. Angelou, and this was embodied by the onstage presence of musician Robert Doswell. The musical moments in the show were rousing and lovely. Though I just don’t think the production utilized Mr. Doswell to his full potential. If you are going to have a live musician on stage for the entire show, why not have that musician create incidental music throughout to support more of the action of the show, and not just reserve him for a few scattered songs?

But, despite my minor grumblings, I can wholeheartedly recommend this production for everyone. It’s worth your time, your money, and your emotional investment. You’ll want to rush out and read more Maya Angelou – which is exactly what I did.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings runs through March 18, 2018 at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side. For more information, visit www.primestage.com.