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Still spreading her wings

At 79, Maya Angelou can't seem to slow down. There are so many interesting things left to do.

By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published May 18, 2007


Maya Angelou doesn't really like the name bestowed upon her current personal appearance tour: Unique Lives.

"It's so pompous," she says, that unmistakably rich voice resonating over the phone line. "The suggestion that I and the other people on this tour have unique lives - so does everybody. The truth is no one could have your life but you."

But Angelou has more claim to a unique life than most of us. Memoirist, poet, essayist, playwright, actor, dancer, director, producer, civil rights activist, world traveler, recipient of dozens of honorary degrees and one of only two poets to read an original work at a presidential inauguration, she has achieved more than a child born during the Depression and growing up black and poor on the wrong side of the tracks in Stamps, Ark., could have dreamed of.

So why, at 79, is she out on the road? Why not stay home in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she is Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, and take it easy?

"I seem not to know how to do that," she says. "When I'm trying to be idle, I seem to find more work to do."

Those who come to Angelou's appearance at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater on Thursday night will see a unique performance, since she never does exactly the same thing.

"I read. I sometimes sing. Before my knee went really bad, I used to dance. I will do anything to make my point," she says.

"Probably I will speak about people who have helped me, and maybe it will remind some of the audience of people who have helped them. Those who helped us without knowing, and those who helped and we didn't know it at the time."

Angelou isn't sure how many stops she'll make on the tour - "If I knew how many, that really might stop me in my tracks" - but she won't be idle when she's done, either.

For one thing, she is preparing to direct a movie based on the late Bebe Moore Campbell's 1998 novel Singing in the Comeback Choir. "I've been waltzing up and down with that book for about five years, trying to get a chance to direct it.

"It drives me crazy when I read that Joe Doakes got $150-million to make some movie and I'm having difficulty raising $6-million," she says, but she expects to get started at last in September.

She still acts occasionally, too, "if something is interesting." One of those interesting things was a role last year in actor-writer-director Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion. "He's very funny, and he's never vulgar, never really crass," Angelou says.

Speaking of crass, Angelou also dusted off her bully pulpit recently to comment on the Don Imus debacle.

"It must give Mr. Imus, whom I like to call Mr. I Messed Up, many ironic sleepless nights," she says of the reaction to Imus' slurs against the Rutgers University women's basketball team.

"The African-American community that has been so split is coming back together because of this. I'm sure he's saying, 'Damn, what have I wrought?'"

Angelou believes that heightened awareness of the damaging power of racist and misogynistic language will have an impact on rap and hip-hop as well.

"It already has," she says. "A leading DJ in New York called a friend of mine and said, 'Never will I play another song where black women, or any women, are demeaned.'"

The controversy, she says, "didn't just start last week, and it won't be over in a week, or 10 weeks. But the dialogue has begun, and it will not cease."

Imus may be off the air, but Angelou is on it. She recently began hosting a weekly radio show on XM Satellite Radio, as part of the Oprah and Friends group of shows.

"It's lovely. I get to talk to all kinds of folks." Her guests have included singers Nancy Wilson and Reba McEntire, actor Alan Alda, activist Winnie Mandela, producer Norman Lear and casino mogul Steve Wynn.

And, of course, Angelou is still writing: "I always write." She says her next book will probably be a collection of essays. She has enjoyed writing previous collections like Even the Stars Look Lonesome and Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now. "It's challenging, the form, you know."

But, she says emphatically, she won't write any more autobiography, even though her best-known book is the heart-wrenching, eloquent I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her six volumes of memoirs.

"I finished that. I had come full circle, to the point in my life where I wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I never wanted to write about writing."

But she writes poetry "constantly," she says.

Any chance she'll be reading another poem at another presidential inauguration?

A pause, then a big laugh rolls across the line. "When I come to St. Petersburg, please come and say hello. I'll answer that question then."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.

 

 

IF YOU GO:

An Evening With Dr. Maya Angelou

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg.

Tickets $40 to $75; group discounts available. Visit www.mahaffey theater.com or call (727) 898-2100.