Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Poetically Divine: With 'Maya's Last Poem,' Fleetwood-Jourdain Creates a Well-Versed Tribute -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Maya's Last Poem
written and directed by Tim Rhoze
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston, IL
Thru August 23

I didn't become aware of Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre until last year, it's 35th anniversary of presenting works highlighting the African-American experience.

But having seen and enjoyed all three of its presentations in 2014--Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, Gee's Bend and Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Jr. Story--I was glad to be back at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center on Saturday for Maya's Last Poem.

As with Why Not Me?, which was reprised this year, Maya's Last Poem was written and directed by Fleetwood-Jourdain Artistic Director Tim Rhoze, who is also a fine actor I most recently enjoyed seeing in Airline Highway at Steppenwolf before the show and Rhoze transferred to Broadway.

The new work is an hourlong one-act piece that imagines a conversation between Maya Angelou--the famed poet, author, actress and more, who passed away in May 2014 at the age of 86--and God, upon Maya's arrival in heaven.

Jacqueline Williams plays Maya Angelou in Maya's Last Poem
Or at least heaven's library, which serves as something as a portal that enables Maya, wonderfully played by Jacqueline Williams, to chat about common interests, inspirations and much more with the deity embodied by Cheryl Lynn Bruce.

It would seem that Rhoze's script--more expository piece than traditional narrative play--is shrewd enough that God could conceivably be enacted by a performer of either gender or various races/ethnicities, but even to someone without much spiritual bent, Bruce's mature black female holiness felt rather believable and meriting of reverence.

Browsing God's library before they meet, Maya is initially greeted by the pretty and effervescent Petra (Antora DeLong), who serves as something of a heavenly executive assistant.

Reference is made to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou's 1969 autobiography whose title comes from a line in a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem; Dunbar is repeatedly cited in Rhoze's work as a favorite of Angelou's--and God's--along with Shakespeare, Poe, Langston Hughes and others.

When God compliments Maya's work, the poet responds cutely that such an honor makes her feel "as though she's died and gone to heaven."

Though a touching tribute to Angelou and her uplifting beliefs--"The power of hate is no match for the power of love" being just one penetrating statement I jotted down--Maya's Last Poem certainly broaches on rough times in the poet's life, including being raped as a child by her mother's brother and encountering ugly racism throughout her life.

The play isn't a heavy-duty biography--and it's brevity combined with a 7:00pm Saturday start time made for a rather fleeting night of theater--but it tells enough about Maya Angelou to make one want to know more.

And her interaction with God serves as more than simply a conversational conceit, as it not only reflects Angelou's faith but allows for interesting parallels regarding creation--whether of a poem or the world.

Rhoze, the three actresses and the Fleetwood-Jourdain team deserve particular praise for crafting a worthwhile world premiere work that is only being performed 6 times (although Maya's Last Poem should hold strong appeal elsewhere, including in scholastic settings).

You probably want to wrap a meal and some discussion around it--a post-show reception was a nice accoutrement on the night I went--but those in the vicinity (the venue is steps from the Purple Line's Noyes stop) could do worse than to catch an enlightening conversation between two remarkable women this Saturday night or Sunday afternoon.

I'm glad I did.

As the nearby graphic shows, along with one more weekend of Maya's Last Poem, Fleetwood-Jourdain will be hosting two upcoming concerts and a black-tie gala.

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