Life

The exhilaration and anxieties of playing Maya Angelou

As a new adaptation of Maya Angelou’s final memoir comes to BBC Radio 4, Stylist meets actors Pippa Bennett-Warner and Adjoa Andoh, who bring the iconic writer to life.

As an actor, agreeing to play an iconic, deceased figure from recent history is a risky game. If things turn out badly, you’ll never live it down – and the person’s fans certainly won’t forgive you for besmirching their hero’s memory. Things get even more intimidating when the person you’re playing is known for their distinctive voice and their genius with the written and spoken word. If you fail to nail the accent, you may as well not have turned up at all. And if the script doesn’t match the brilliance of the icon’s own words, the whole endeavour will feel pointless.

All of these pressures were present in the minds of British actors Pippa Bennett-Warner and Adjoa Andoh when they were asked to play Maya Angelou – the legendary American writer and poet who died in 2014 – in BBC Radio 4 drama series The Amazing Maya Angelou. The dramatisations, the last series of which starts on 25 February, are adapted from Angelou’s six internationally-acclaimed autobiographies, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and ending with A Song Flung Up To Heaven. Bennett-Warner plays Angelou as a young adult, while Andoh provides the voice of the older Angelou reflecting on her life.

“When I got the email saying ‘would you [play Angelou]’, I was literally like: eek!” says Bennett-Warner. “I read the scripts and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not going to be able to do it; I’m not going to be able to do the voice.’ And because she is who she is, I wanted to feel like I’d honoured her.” 

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When they finished recording the final series in early 2019, Bennett-Warner was overcome with emotion. “I was so teary when I got to the final bit of dialogue. It felt like I’d gone over the mountain and reached the other side.” It’s easy to “get casual” while working on radio dramas, she explains: there’s no need for hair, make-up or costumes, and you don’t even have to learn your lines. But you can’t be casual when you’re playing Maya Angelou.

“We had to bring everything,” Bennett-Warner says. “I felt like I could not coast on a single word. Not even a syllable. We just had to completely attack the material.”

Pippa Bennett-Warner (left) and Adjoa Andoh 

Over the course of Angelou’s memoirs, the writer grows from a mute child experiencing racial and sexual abuse in the American Deep South into a young single mother working as a pimp, sex worker, dancer and nightclub singer. Later in life, she becomes a civil rights activist in the US, a journalist in Egypt and Ghana during decolonisation, a Hollywood film director and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet who speaks at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and is presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

It’s a remarkable biography by any standards, one that captures the broad historical sweep of the 20th century African American liberation movement as well as issues of class, sexuality, gender, abuse, family, ambition and love. “It’s bizarre how extraordinary her life was,” agrees Andoh. 

In an example of life coming full circle, Andoh and Angelou met in the late Eighties when they worked on a BBC Radio 4 programme together. Angelou sucked up “all the oxygen in the room,” Andoh recalls. “She was magnificent – and she was everything she described herself [as], apart from ugly. She wasn’t ugly, she was striking, and just big and broad and full of life.”

Andoh reels off some of the most vivid moments from Angelou’s memoirs: the period she spent touring Europe with a production of Porgy and Bess in the Fifties; her close friendships with militant civil rights activist Malcolm X and author James Baldwin; her time coordinating events for Martin Luther King Jr (tragically, he asked her to organise a march shortly before he was assassinated in 1968); her long-time partnership with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, through whom she met Nelson Mandela in 1962. “She was living at that bit of the 20th century where the world was shaking and shifting,” Andoh says. “She seemed to stumble into everything.”

But Angelou’s life was frequently grindingly hard, as well as glamorous and exciting. She gave birth to her son Guy when she was just 17, and did a number of mundane and gruelling jobs just to pay the rent. It’s because of this aspect of her story, Andoh believes, that so many women feel an intense connection to her memoirs and poetry.

“I think that women of all different backgrounds can relate to her on the level of the struggle,” she says. “But not just the struggle so much as the struggle and the overcoming, and the laughter and the joy. And the sense of: ‘I will overcome, and I will overcome fabulously, thank you’.”

Maya Angelou in a promotional portrait taken for the cover of her album Miss Calypso, 1957

Angelou might be adored by women (and men) of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities, but she holds a special place in the hearts of many black women. After her death, Oprah Winfrey described her as her “spiritual queen mother”, while Michelle Obama paid tribute to her for “[disregarding] all the rules” at a time “when there were such stifling constraints on how a black woman could exist in the world”. And so it feels more than fitting that the BBC chose a glittering roster of black female playwrights – Patricia Cumper, Winsome Pinnock and Janice Okoh – to adapt Angelou’s memoirs for Radio 4.

Bennett-Warner and Andoh do believe that a white male writer would have been capable of adapting Angelou’s work. However, they’re thrilled that the responsibility was given to black women. “The men get all the stuff!” says Bennett-Warner. “It’s nice to give it to some brown ladies.”

“When you’ve been a woman who has experienced racism and sexism, I think there is an extra layer that you may be able to tap into. There’s a heat about your experience that you can bring to the work,” says Andoh. 

“But you still fundamentally have to be a good writer. We don’t want a poor adaptation of [Angelou’s] work, and I don’t want to be associated with a poor adaptation of anything.”

Adjoa Andoh with the company of Richard II in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Both Andoh and Bennett-Warner have worked extensively in film, TV and theatre. Bennett-Warner stars in Hulu TV series Harlots and is about to start filming forthcoming Sky drama Gangs of London, while Andoh is currently in rehearsals for a production of Richard II that she’s directing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. Opening on 22 February, it will be the first ever major UK production of a Shakespeare play with a company entirely made up of women of colour.

But they say that radio holds a special place in their hearts. “Because nobody can see me [on the radio], I’ve been able to play non-colour-specific roles – which is just great,” says Bennett-Warner. Her radio drama CV includes playing an Indian grandmother, a white woman from 19th century Louisiana and The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, all on BBC Radio 4. “I wouldn’t be able to play those characters if I wasn’t on the radio, so I love it because of that.”

Similarly, it was radio that allowed Andoh to play Nancy in an adaptation of Oliver Twist in the Eighties. While the British TV and film industries are gradually opening up to the idea of diverse casting in period pieces – Sophie Okonedo played Nancy in a 2007 BBC One miniseries based on Charles Dickens’ novel, and Dev Patel can be seen starring as David Copperfield in an upcoming feature film – “that was never going to happen in the Eighties,” Andoh says.

But, Bennett-Warner points out, it was actors like Andoh who “paved the way” for her to be able to play traditionally white roles.

“And other people paved the way for me,” Andoh says, smiling. “And Maya paved the way for both of us.”

Download BBC Sounds to listen to Radio 4’s dramatisation of Maya Angelou: A Song Flung up to Heaven from Monday 25 February

Images: Getty Images / Paris Jefferson / Ingrid Pollard

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