They were such tiny little kids to put on a train by themselves from Southern California to rural Arkansas — Maya Angelou only 3, her big brother, Bailey, all of 4. Each wore a wrist tag spelling out who they were, where they were headed and who would take care of them there.
It was the early 1930s, their parents were splitting up and the children were off to live with their grandmother Annie Henderson in a town called Stamps, where she owned a general store.
“The store was my favorite place to be,” the grown-up Maya says 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 most of a decade in her young life — long before she became a famous poet or received a Tony Award nomination for acting in a Broadway show that ran for one performance — it was a place where she was safe, and loved. And in Khalia Davis’s production for New York City Children’s Theater, it is the place to which she returns, stepping back into that empty store and unfurling her memories as monologue.
The Maya (Cherrye J. Davis) of this oversimplified play is in her 40s, just as Angelou was when the book came out in 1969 and became a best seller. In the decades since then, it has been a frequent target for book banners — because of its visceral depictions of everyday hatred and brutal violence in the virulently racist Jim Crow South, and for its frank discussion of rape and sexual abuse.
With those elements in mind, New York City Children’s Theater recommends its production, at Theater Row, for ages 16 and up. Still, it is a difficult piece to translate to the stage; while a book can be read in private and put down at any point, the audience at a play can’t 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 staging, this 55-minute show feels foiled by all of that, its characters and incidents too briefly sketched to gather the necessary force and weight.
There are moments of vividness in Maya’s recollections, like crowding around the radio to hear the boxer Joe Louis fight for a championship — the thrill of his victory for Black listeners, and the danger underneath: “It wouldn’t do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world.”
But the production, and Davis’s performance, have an insistently perky gloss that reads as condescending, while the script sometimes trims details to the point of dumbing down.
When Maya speaks of the vitalizing effect of books on her young self, she likens the escape they offered to “a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood 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 that really be too sophisticated for a teenage audience, especially in talking about the awakening of a writer’s mind?
The play is gentle yet unambiguous in recalling Maya’s rape at age 8 by her mother’s boyfriend. There, too, though, the editing feels off, condensing discrete episodes of sexual abuse in a way that acknowledges the child’s pleasure at being held by this man yet elides mention of the physical pain he caused, which Angelou describes in the memoir as a “breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart.”
From the cheerful outfit (by Rodrigo Hernandez Martinez) that the grown-up Maya wears and the ease she has in her body, we are reassured from the very start of the show that she came through even the worst of her childhood ultimately OK. But in paring her story down rather than distilling it, this play never manages to convey a sense of the whole of her.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Through June 5 at Theater Row, Manhattan; nycchildrenstheater.org. Running time: 55 minutes.