Wednesday, February 22, 2017

American Masters: Maya Angelou (PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night PBS showed an American Masters show on Maya Angelou, a figure I’m really not that familiar with — I’ve never actually read any of her books but she’s certainly become enough of a force to conjure with in the cultural mainstream I’ve heard of her even though I hadn’t realized she died in 2014 (and oddly that was not mentioned on the program either — directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, two names which seem to invite bad puns, didn’t mention that she was no longer among the living). I’d probably have liked this better if I had read her, though one thing I liked about the show is it didn’t pretend that her life between her growing up in Stamps, Arkansas (a small town to which her parents shipped her when she was 4 to live with relatives there because they didn’t want her around them in Los Angeles, where she was born and her dad had a prestigious, at least by the standards of employment open to African-Americans then, job as a doorman at a fancy hotel) and her publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969 didn’t exist. I’d known she originally tried to make it as a singer and dancer — she always felt she danced better than she sang — and that she’d worked briefly as a personal assistant to Billie Holiday (which she mentioned in her last book in her autobiographical cycle, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, though it wasn’t mentioned in this show), who reportedly once told her, “You’re going to be famous for something one day, but it’s not going to be for singing.” Angelou released at least one album, Calypso Girl, and she appeared in the 1957 movie Calypso Heat Wave (this was at a time when a lot of people thought rock ’n’ roll was a passing fad and calypso was going to replace it as the “in” music of the young) doing two songs. When Charles and I watched this movie I wrote about it in my blog post, “That’s right, the famous African-American poet and memoirist sought a musical career in the 1950’s, and on the evidence here she was actually damned good; she sings two songs, Louis Jordan’s calypso novelty ‘Run Joe’ and a piece she wrote called ‘All That Happens in the Market Place,’ and her voice is strong, clear, authoritative and more than a little reminiscent of Nina Simone’s. In fact, as I said to Charles later, one could readily imagine an alternative universe in which Angelou’s career trajectory paralleled Simone’s: first getting a major reputation in the music world and then writing songs, rather than books or poems, dealing with the kinds of serious issues of racism, sexism, violation and such Angelou actually covered in her books.”

Angelou’s entertainment career was checkered: she got to be in one of the touring companies of Porgy and Bess even though she wasn’t a classically trained singer (one of the reasons George Gershwin put it in the terms of the Porgy and Bess copyrights that only genuine African-Americans could be cast in its Black roles was to give Black singers who were classically trained parts that they could sing without having to face the discrimination that kept Marian Anderson off the Metropolitan Opera stage until 1955) and she gave a concert in Cairo where all the other Porgy and Bess cast members sang classical songs or opera arias. She complained to the conductor, Alexander Smallens (who had been shepherding Porgy and Bess productions since the world premiere in 1935), that she didn’t know any, and he said, “Do you know any spirituals?” Given that Angelou had grown up in a fiercely religious household and been dragged to church almost every day of the week, that wasn’t a problem: she sang “City Called Heaven” and tore up the audience. The low point of her career was when she auditioned for the all-Black version of Hello, Dolly! and was offered the job as understudy to the show’s star, Pearl Bailey. She was looking forward to this because it would have meant living for a year or two in New York, making good money and being able to parent her son (who’d been born out of wedlock out of one of those infallible pregnancies at single contacts — a man had been bugging her in San Francisco to have sex with him, she kept saying no, then one night she said yes, and thereafter realized he’d impregnated her) — and then Pearl Bailey, treating her with the same withering condescension with which Ethel Waters had treated Billie Holiday when Billie auditioned to open for her at the Apollo Theatre in 1932, said she didn’t want that ugly bitch understudying her. (Later Angelou got one of her lifetime achievement awards and Pearl Bailey was tapped to present it — and both women had the grace not to speak to each other about the incident. But this story surprised me because Bailey, unlike Waters, had a reputation of treating newcomers well.)

Angelou had enough of a reputation that in 1968, a year before she published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she hosted a PBS TV series about African-American history and culture (and the clips included in this documentary indicate it would be well worth reviving). It also mentioned odd presentations she was in like the Broadway production of Jean Genêt’s The Blacks (a role-reversal in which Angelou played a white queen deposed by her Black subjects; the gimmick was that all the parts were played by Black actors, and the ones who were playing whites did so by donning stylized white masks), and it depicts a number of her co-stars from that production (including Louis Gossett, Jr. and Cicely Tyson) as well as later Black actors she mentored (like Alfre Woodard). And it shows her in the original Roots as Kunta Kinte’s mother, as well as some of the films she directed herself (reportedly she was the first African-American woman admitted to the Screen Directors’ Guild). Among the interviewees for this program are Bill and Hillary Clinton, who invited Angelou to write and perform a new poem for Bill’s 1993 Presidential inauguration. Bill Clinton wanted a poet for his inaugural — there hadn’t been one since John F. Kennedy had invited Robert Frost in 1961 — and they picked Angelou because she was not only a celebrity but, at least by adoption, a fellow Arkansan. The show included clips of Angelou reading her poem “On the Wings of Morning” at Clinton’s inauguration, and it was yet one more cultural artifact that comes off quite differently in the Age of Trump than it did at the time: a poem about building bridges between cultures and celebrating diversity seems quite dated, quite (to use a George Orwell Newspeak word) “oldthinkful,” now that we’re living under TrumpAmerica and the president is preaching endless rants of hatred and division!