The Legacy of Maya Angelou at the Center for Performing Arts

by Kevin T McEneaney

Rhinebeck Theatre Society presents Still We Rise at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck this weekend only with three performances. The presentation offers poetic readings, music, solo songs, skits, archival film footage, some dancing, and choral song by Caged Bird Legacy, LLC featuring lively musical impressions by Manar Hashmi.

The episodic cabaret format reminded me of 1960’s Happenings with less rambunctious improvisation. The felicitous highlight of the production was Phyllis Harris singing solo the traditional song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” with piano accompaniment by Marva Clark. This was a crescendo that somewhat eclipsed the finale cast-ensemble-chorus of “Still I Rise.”

The archival film footage of Maya Angelou presents riveting excerpts. Her wit, charm, wisdom, eloquence, and generosity glow with a love for all humanity. From growing up in Stamps,  Arkansas (although she was born in Saint Louis, MO) as a traumatized young girl unable to speak for six years, she turned into a legendary wordsmith and charismatic speaker whose voice was beloved by all the nations on this globe.

There were many recitations of her poems, often with superscript on screen. Her poems offer a syncretic synthesis of folklore and Modernism that manage to walk side by side amid her message of hope for those in need of hope. There were slides of original oil paintings, including one by Maya Angelou entitled “A Brave and Startling Truth.”

Ryan Michki gave a superb rendition of “Sympathy” by Florence Price based upon a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. A clatch of young students from Kreiger Elementary School sang “Rainbow in the Sky” surprisingly well under the direction of Esther Stewart.

If you are not familiar with Maya Angelou (1928-2014), this might be a good place to start. Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) remains a noted classic of American literature, the first volume of seven autobiographical memoirs. The somewhat fuzzy footage of Maya reading at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration reminds us of the great strides in recent video technology. It also reminds us that her brand of honesty and integrity was an inspiration for her era and that she was that rare special person of the kind which may be lacking today.

There will be two more performances: on Saturday at 8 pm, plus another on Sunday at 3 pm. For further information on tickets click The CENTER for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck.

Kevin T McEneaney

Author of Hunter S. Thompson: Fear. Loathing, and the Birth of Gonzo, and other books