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Maya Angelou joined Appalachian State University on a bitterly cold Tuesday in a joyous and exuberant artistic celebration of the work and life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The ASU Dance Ensemble, Gospel Choir, Symphony Orchestra, and Faculty Jazz Ensemble joined forces to produce an interdisciplinary, collaborative performance that set the tone for Dr. Angelou's remarks.
After a welcome and invocation, Dr. Keith McCutchen invited the crowd to join in "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Unfortunately, the house lights were left down and most members of the audience, which exceeded 5,000 students, faculty, staff, and community members, were unable to read the lyrics to the three verses. The lack of light combined with a high melodic range made for a shaky start to the program, but the next piece more than compensated.
Dr. McCutchen arranged a medley of spirituals, including "How I Got Over," that called for the combined forces of the ASU Gospel Choir, Men's Glee Club, the Faculty Jazz Ensemble, and a contingent of string players from the ASU Symphony Orchestra. Impressive and energetic solos by Dr. Todd Wright on the saxophone, Dr. McCutchen himself on piano, and student vocalist Dominique Atwater lent individuality to the dense orchestration. Eight dancers from the ASU Dance Ensemble contributed a quasi-improvisatory blend of classical and modern technique. The movement was both tasteful and exuberant; and was strongly evocative of the vivacious but precise style of Dr. Angelou's writing.
After the musical selections, the sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority presented a group recitation of "Phenomenal Woman" with a fine sense of style before introducing the keynote speaker of the evening.
"When thunders rolled and the sky was dark, God put a rainbow in the cloud / God put a rainbow in the cloud / It looked like the sun wouldn't shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the cloud." Dr. Angelou opened her comments by singing this fragment of an African-American song. For those who have not had the privilege of hearing this remarkable woman speak, it was a perfect introduction. Her prose has all the delightful inflection of her award-winning poetry. Dressed in red velvet and sunglasses, she made a poised and riveting figure.
Dr. Angelou's remarks ranged from downright hilarious to raw and deeply personal. One anecdote described an experience as the first African-American woman director at Twentieth Century Fox Studios. She described walking out of her office in protest of a racial slur, only to discover she had left her purse. "I'd die rather than go back inside. So I hid in the bushes." On a more serious note, Dr. Angelou spoke to her own history of surviving sexual assault and her response of years of selective mutism. She buried herself in poetry, and spoke at length on her personal experience of healing. She admonished the audience to brush up on their poetry, including Shakespeare, James W. Johnson, Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Charles, and Kenny Chesney. "If it's good music, it's good," she said. "And the poetry, the lyric, will let you know not only that you are okay, but that you are just fine." She ended the evening by reading of "A Brave and Startling Truth," written for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.
To top off the evening, the ASU Gospel Choir and Symphony Orchestra presented another medley of "We Shall Overcome," "Optimistic," and "I Believe." It was a rousing ending to a vibrant and delightful evening.