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They know why this onstage bard still sings

Actor-poet-author Maya Angelou is a 'rainbow in a cloud' as she regales a rapt audience in L.A.

February 25, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

A night with Maya Angelou includes a little singing, a little poetry, a little storytelling. And why shouldn't it? She is an actor, a poet, an author and, despite protestations to the contrary Friday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a mesmerizing singer.

Before a rapt audience -- female, male, black, white, younger, older, all devoted to Angelou and quick to applaud -- she delivered nothing short of an inspirational homily (she's kind of a preacher-teacher) on being the rainbow in a life of clouds.

"When it looked like the sun wasn't shining anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds," she said.

Her strong, honeyed voice lifted the words -- from a 19th century gospel song -- into the dimly lighted air as she stood onstage, a vision in a ruby dress and a white necklace.

"If the rainbow is in the clouds themselves, that means at the worst of times there is hope," said Angelou, one of a distinguished lineup of lecturers in the Music Center Speaker Series.

"I know that we've all had rainbows in our clouds -- or not one of us would be here," she said to her audience, which alternately laughed and fell hush. Occasionally someone murmured an "mm-hmm" of agreement.

Angelou recounted being sent off as a child with her brother to live with her grandmother and Uncle Willie in Stamps, Ark. "Uncle Willie, I think the same afternoon we arrived, taught me my times tables." The two relatives owned a general store there. Her kindhearted uncle, hobbled by paralysis on his right side, instilled in her a love for learning.

She paused in her story. "I may weep," she said, which brought audience members to the brink of tears.

When Willie died, she returned to Arkansas, stopping in Little Rock, where she was introduced to a handsomely attired man who proclaimed her uncle's death a great loss for the state.

"Uncle Willie?" she asked skeptically.

"In the '30s, I was the only son of a blind man," the man told her. "Your Uncle Willie gave me a job. He taught me to love learning."

Angelou went on: "He said, 'He made me who I am today. I'm the mayor of Little Rock, Ark.'

"Look at Willie -- black, poor, crippled, in the lynching years. How can I know the extent of his rainbow?"

It wasn't exactly new material for Angelou, 78, who at President Clinton's request wrote a poem for his 1993 inauguration and has spoken around the globe, weaving autobiography, observation and poetry into her lectures.

But like any extraordinary performer, she was as compelling as if she had stumbled upon these epiphanies the day before. And she is never funnier than when she calls out people on their own pronouncements.

Of the humorless waitress in the health food diner who, more than two decades ago, chastised Angelou as she started for a cigarette -- declaring, "You've endangered everyone here!" -- Angelou deadpanned: "All I had done was unwrap the cellophane."

Angelou quit smoking soon afterward ("If you smoke, please stop," she told the audience in a pleading tone), but the experience led her to pen a hilarious poem about an unrepentant lover of cigarettes and meat. "You can find it on the Internet," she said dryly.

... Uncooked kale and bodies

frail

Are sure to make me run to

Loins of pork and chicken thighs

And standing rib, so prime...

or any place that saves a space

For smoking carnivores.

"I don't trust people who don't laugh," said Angelou, who is perhaps most famous for "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," the powerful autobiography of her early years, which included a childhood rape, the rapist's murder and the subsequent years of self-imposed "mutism," as she calls it.

"I don't trust people who don't like themselves -- 'I don't like me, but I love you.' There's an African saying: 'Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.' "

At this point in her acclaimed life, she seems bemused by recitation of her achievements. Perhaps that is why, to the audience's delight, she interrupted her introduction by Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry and simply walked onstage before Perry was done ticking off her accomplishments. (Or maybe she just took the wrong cue for her entrance.) Possessing about 50 honorary degrees -- as she proudly mentioned -- she appears grateful to the "rainbows" who guided her to prominence but weary of the rock-star adulation that comes with it.

"About eight years ago, I stopped flying commercially," she said. "I've become quite well-known.... People run up to me and they poke me and they touch my clothes."

She recalled stepping out of a car at an airport and hearing a woman suddenly scream, "Maya Angelou is getting out of a car!"

"I said, 'Excuse me, dear, are you traveling alone?' She said, 'Yes, ma'am!' I said, 'Who are you telling?' "

Angelou, who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., now travels by tricked-out luxury bus. "But it's still a bus," she said. "From Winston-Salem to Los Angeles is a fair step. When I say I'm glad to be here, I mean it."

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carla.hall@latimes.com

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