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Extemperanous Excellence

Whether through poetry, stories or songs, Maya Angelou challenges audiences.

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My first impression of seeing Angelou start her performance this way a few years ago at the State University of New York at Purchase was of admiration for her boldness in starting out with a wordless number. My next impression was how powerful and charismatic this woman was even without words to form her message.

What would come next was anyone’s guess, and it will be that way again in Richmond on Feb. 19 when she appears at the Landmark Theater, for Angelou does not work from a script. She weaves poetry — not always her own — and autobiographical passages into her addresses, as well as songs, possibly in several languages as she is fluent in six. She can be humorous, with excellent timing and believable self-deprecation, or she can be scathing and confrontational. She tells stories, relates anecdotes and poses thoughtful questions and challenges to the audience. Alternating light and heavy moments, she goes nonstop for 90 minutes, never being less than captivating.

As she graciously acknowledged her reception, I was struck again by her regal bearing, which manifested itself both in her physical carriage and in the cadence of her speech – rich, resonant, perhaps somewhat affected. If there appears to be some haughtiness to her, some queenlike qualities, all I can say is that she deserves to carry herself as different. Her record backs her up, and indeed her record is perhaps without peer.

Maya Angelou is known mostly as a writer and poet. The first installment of her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is perhaps her best-known work and was nominated for a National Book Award. She has many poetry collections to choose from, including the Pulitzer-nominated “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie,” and the acclaimed “And Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems For Women.” Given that this appearance is part of a celebration of Black History Month, she may read from “From a Black Woman to a Black Man,” which was delivered at the Million Man March in Washington in 1995.

Angelou’s abilities extend far beyond autobiography and poetry, though. In an amazing life, which began in abject poverty, Angelou has risen to great heights in many fields. She has been nominated for a Tony award and an Emmy award for her acting. In the civil rights arena, she was the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1959-1960, appointed at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She has won a Grammy award for Best Spoken Word Album, and she has been awarded at least 47 honorary degrees, including one from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1985.

Put simply, hers is a voice that deserves to be heard — in person. S

Maya Angelou performs at the Landmark Theater, 6 N. Laurel St., Thursday, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $24.95 - $64.95 and can be purchased through Ticketmaster at 262-8100 or the box office, 646-4213.

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