Angelou adaptation is a rough gem that needs polishing

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is the first of several memoirs penned by Maya Angelou, and it remains the most riveting.

Angelou's coming of age as an awkward, insecure, African-American girl-child dealing with parental abandonment, racial brutality and sexual violence is in part a harrowing tale.

And yet the author infuses her story (which takes its title from a poignant Paul Laurence Dunbar poem) with ample humor and compassion. And with an appreciation for the love, laughter, music and talent for endurance she acquired on a rocky (and abbreviated) path to adulthood.

Book-It Repertory Theatre's new dramatization of "Caged Bird" is clearly an in-progress affair. It relies primarily on costuming (by Deborah Sorensen) and lighting (by Patti West) for visual effects. And it has a highly episodic script by Myra Platt that could benefit substantially from some astute reshaping, refining and trimming.

But even in its gem-in-the-rough state, the show conveys the essence of Angelou's youthful journey. And it captures her unique authorial voice, in all its peppery wit and vivid descriptiveness.

Platt, whose staging of "Caged Bird" is premiering at Theatre Off Jackson, cast the show attentively. Demene E. Hall embodies the regal adult Maya looking back on her youth, as well as Maya's first real maternal figure: her wise, gutsy Arkansas grandmother, Annie.

Felicia Loud (who deserves a Purple Heart for performing on crutches after some unexpected surgery) comes through as Maya's charismatic if occasionally irresponsible mother. Book-It regular Reginald Andre Jackson handles a pair of roles (sympathetic and hateful) adroitly, as does an attractive Seattle newcomer, Steven Taylor.

But at the epicenter here is Lanise Antoine Shelley, whose elastic face and lanky frame express, in turn, young Maya's jubilation and fears, her sense of awe and alienation, and her deep attachment to her brother, Bailey (zestfully played by Earl Alexander).

With such a sympathetic heroine, "Caged Bird" is able to subliminally chart the long-term effects of rape on Maya, who is assaulted at age 8 by her mother's boyfriend. Shelley's portrayal reveals how perplexity over that violation hardens into anger, and how loss of innocence and sexual confusion eventually lead to teenage pregnancy.

All these matters are dramatized sensitively — in a play which, by the way, has no nudity or profanity. Still, the rape scenes are graphic and disturbing — certainly too much so for children, or very sheltered adolescents.

But if the rape is a critical part of Maya's youth, it does not overburden the narrative. Attention is paid to a great many other relationships and incidents in her early life — from the joys of finding a first "best friend," to the succor of blues and gospel music (sung well by the cast, and accompanied on piano by Christopher R. Johnson), to a disappointing visit with her father, and an encounter with a bigoted dentist.

Retaining the strongest of these episodes, and cutting down or eliminating the others, would make "Caged Bird" a leaner, more propulsive piece. And finding a less clumsy and arbitrary way for young Maya and older Maya to share the narration would also be a boon.

As heartfelt and engaging as "Caged Bird" is now, one hopes it grows into something more polished and pointed. At least Book-It has made a fine start at cracking this enduring and engrossing coming-of-age saga.

Misha Berson:

Theater review

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," by Maya Angelou, adapted by Myra Platt. Thursday-Sunday through March 1, Book-It Repertory Theatre at Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle; $15-$22, 206-325-6500.