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Tavis Smiley, Kenny Leon Team For Adaptation of My Journey With Maya

Once Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon wraps his work with the NBC TV and Broadway revival of the 1970’s hit musical The Wiz, he will direct his attention to a play based on award-winning journalist Tavis Smiley’s book, “My Journey with Maya.”

“I haven’t been this excited by a project in a long, long time. I don’t think there is another person like her in my lifetime or in the last 100 years of American artistry and literary achievement,” Leon has said about the author, poet and civil rights activist.

When interviewed on WYNC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” following the release of his book, Smiley was asked who he would like to play Dr. Maya Angelou. He said at the top of his short list would be Phylicia Rashad, the incomparable mother of “The Cosby Show” and Broadway fame. Listeners were asked to share their picks, which included: Oprah Winfrey, Pamela Poitier and Audra McDonald. Smiley said it will ultimately be left to Leon’s discretion, including who would portray him.

The production, however, is not a telling of the life of Dr. Angelou – who died May 28, 2014. Rather, Smiley has described it as a coming-of-age story about a young man trying to find his way in the world while traversing difficult moments in life. It is about a relationship, a friendship, that shaped the future of the host of PBS’ “Tavis Smiley” and Public Radio International’s “The Tavis Smiley Show.” Angelou is like a mother to him, the news personality said. And, his journey – one that has always been to be a public servant – is filled with much wisdom and inspiration from one of America’s most influential people and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Since Angelou’s death, there also has been a hip hop-infused remix of her poems, Caged Bird Songs, released by Smooch Music (November 2014); her poem, “A Brave and Startling Truth,” was aboard Orion’s first test flight into space (December 2014); and the United States Postal Service unveiled a commemorative Forever stamp (April 2015).

The Little, Brown & Company memoir, co-written with David Ritz, was released April 7 – the same day as the postage stamp and three days after what would have been Dr. Angelou’s 87th birthday. April 1 it was announced that the book would be adapted for the stage and that a writer was being sought for the project.

The book summary reads:

“Tavis Smiley and Maya Angelou met in 1986, when he was twenty-one and she was fifty-eight. For the next twenty-eight years, Angelou was a teacher and a maternal figure to Smiley, and they talked often of art, politics, history, music, religion, and race. In My Journey with Maya, Smiley beautifully recounts a friendship filled with conversation that began when he, a recent college graduate and a poor kid from a big family in the Midwest, accompanied the revered writer on a sojourn to Ghana. Smiley stumbled into a relationship with her that shaped his future and affected the man he became. Like a mother to him, she was generous, challenging, and inspirational – as she was to so many. Here he shares his portrait of Angelou – a highly complex individual who left an indelible imprint on American culture.”

Having unsuccessfully ran for public office as a city councilman, Smiley said he felt lost and unsure of what was next for him in the early 90s. While an aide to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in 1993, he briefly met Angelou. Then he had the opportunity to assist a small group of friends accompanying Angelou on a two-week visit to Africa. His job was “carrying her bags,” but it became the basis for a 30-year friendship. Smiley has said: “I am who I am because Maya Angelou loved me.”

For the launch of the book, the author shared via social media lessons he learned from Angelou and started a #LoveVSCourage conversation, as the two often debated on what was the greater virtue. Angelou believed courage was the greatest virtue (“I’ve often said that of all the virtues courage is the most vital. Without courage we can do little.”). Smiley continues to be convinced that love activated courage. Despite their persuading reasonings, neither budged, according to Smiley. Prompting “hours of lively exchange, laughter, thrilling arguments and thoughtful reflection,” this debate is at the heart of the book, he said. The book also features conflict over Smiley’s scrutiny of Democratic nominee Barack Obama as he sought to become the first African-American president.

My Journey With Maya follows Smiley’s 2014 Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year. During his interview with Lehrer, he stated that Angelou – who was born the day King died (April 4) – was his “cosmic connection” to all the great Black icons he wished he had known: Martin Luther King Jr.; Malcolm X; James Baldwin; Nelson Mandela; and Nina Simone.

In his book, Smiley wrote: “The key to all relationships, whether a private relationship among two friends or a public relationship between an interviewer and interviewee, is listening… Your eagerness to speak often belies your willingness to listen.”

When “My Journey With Maya” hits the stage, we all will be listening.

With more than 50 honorary degrees, Angelou has published seven autobiographies – the first being the acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) – and several books of poetry with Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her achievements include: a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away; three Grammys for her spoken word albums; a Spingarn Medal (1994); and National Medal of Arts (2000). She was a dancer, singer, actor, director and producer of plays, movies and public television programs. She also was a journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the days of decolonization and coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Leon, who won a Tony for 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington, will add the Smiley play to a list of noted works that include: Holler If Ya Hear Me, Stick Fly; The Mountaintop; and August Wilson’s Fences, Radio Golf and Gem of the Ocean.

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