Maya Angelou wows local crowd

Published May 25, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- Outside the Mahaffey Theater, the wind boomed in off the bay, threatening the elegant hairdos with a natural disaster.

Inside, the booming came from the loudspeaker countdown: Six minutes until curtain!

Then it was time for Maya Angelou.

Angelou, at 79, is a bestselling memoirist, an honored poet, a civil rights activist, a playwright, actor, director, dancer, songwriter, teacher and radio host. On Thursday night, she was also the funniest comedian to take the stage in St. Petersburg.

"I like to laugh," she confided.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the most famous former resident of Stamps, Ark., cracked jokes about Don Imus, her inability to remember the names of rappers ("Piffy?") and the way her uncle taught her multiplication in one night -- dangling her in front of a blazing stove.

The crowd welcomed her with a standing ovation.

Angelou started off with a song about how "when it looked like the sun wouldn't shine any more, God put a rainbow in the skies."

She compared rainbows on a stormy day to the people who helped her become something other than "one more poor, barefoot, black, abused girl."

Repeating her most famous story, she told about how, as a child, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. When he was then kicked to death by persons unknown, she fell mute for six years, convinced she had killed him by speaking his name.

She told how her grandmother would encourage her to speak again, telling her "when you and the good Lord get ready, you going to be a teacher."

"I used to sit there and think, 'This poor, ignorant woman!'" said Angelou, now a professor at Wake Forest University. The crowd roared.