Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre is rounding out their season with a hypothetical question: what is Maya Angelou doing in the afterlife?
In this celebratory take on writing after death, written and directed by Tim Rhoze, Maya Angelou composes verses in God’s library and explores themes common to her writing as we know it on Earth.
Tim Rhoze and actress Jacqueline Williams, who plays Angelou, answered a few questions from Evanston Now regarding their production and portrayal of the writer and activist.
When you think of Maya Angelou, what do you think of?
Rhoze: So many thoughts happen that I could not begin to nail down just one; what happens when I’m in my Maya zone is the inspiration to be better: a better person, more thoughtful, patient and giving. If I can help someone else find their joy, then that is a great day!
What’s your favorite piece of writing by Maya?
Rhoze: Her, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” still stirs a plethora of emotions in my soul. It left an incredible impression on me the first time I read it that has lasted to this day. Along the way, to this time in my life, I have read more of Maya’s works, but the first book is the one that will always be somewhere near me. “Alas, I know why the caged bird sings, Ah me.”
Williams: There are different things I like about each publication and for different reasons. I know it’s cliche, but I suppose “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” will forever be a special one for me, because it had such an impact on me.
What’s it like – in rehearsal or in performance – to give a second life to such an amazing role model? What are the challenges and the benefits?
Williams: It is a great honor to bring the essence of Dr. Angelou to the stage. There was only one of her, so that’s about all one can do; bring the essence. I did not burden myself with trying to put a carbon copy on the stage. She was not a flashy performer with shtick and an act. She was just herself. It’s an awesome feeling to live in her essence and glimpse the magic of her light, charisma, and influence. She was an icon that was such an amazing and accessable spirit. Her human connection was so truthful, steady, and heartfelt.
If there was one moment – and it may not be just one – when you feel like you’ve connected with Maya through your work on this play, what would it be?
Williams: I’ve been a lifelong fan and admirer of Dr. Angelou, so I went into this project fairly well connected. One of the strongest connections in the play is when she gets to see her brother Bailey again. One of my sisters, Bettie, passed in February. We were extremely close; probably as close as Dr Angelou and her brother were, and I would love to see her again and hear her laughter.
Jacqueline Williams playing Maya Angelou in “Maya’s Last Poem”.
Can you speak a little bit about how important work featuring an inspiring and powerful female Black lead is in today’s world? What does it mean to you that this is a project of Fleetwood-Jourdain’s?
Williams: I always feel it’s important to have the Black female voice heard. For too long, our voices have been buried, stifled, overlooked, ignored, and discredited (intentionally and unintentionally). We’ve had some amazing innovators and groundbreakers. Dr. Angelou was such a renaissance woman and such a force and a light that she was extremely difficult to ignore. I believe the world is better because of that.
This is an amazing step for Fleetwood-Jourdain. Tim Rhoze has made leaps and bounds with Fleetwood; with its growth in artistic and professional productions, its unique and groundbreaking programming, its community growth and enrichments efforts. I hope the city truly realizes what an important force Fleetwood-Jourdain has become.
My family is from Mississippi, but I’m the one child who was actually born here. I am an Evanstonian. I am proud to have this project come out of the richness of my home town. An important piece of theatre has been birthed here. I hope our community truly realizes that. “Maya’s Last Poem” is so important that Fleetwood-Jourdain was able to pull two A-List Chicago-area based actors. The community should not take that for granted. Our community doesn’t HAVE to go into the city to get professional theatre if they don’t want to. We have it right here in Fleetwood-Jourdain. Fleetwood-Jourdain is now a destination.
What would you most like audiences to come away with after seeing this play?
Rhoze: I believe this play, which deals with a “what if…?” scenario, will give people a chance to think about what they are doing with their time, and how they can do some good for themselves as well as for others. I think people will have a good time learning more about the power of forgiveness, laughter and love.
Williams: I would like audiences to come away with appreciation for the gift that was Dr. Maya Angelou, renewed faith in the power of the human spirit, and the fire to be the best they can be- to never stop growing, learning, and making our world better.
“Maya’s Last Poem” runs through August 23rd at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston.