LOS ANGELES (AP) — In the nearly 30-year friendship that Tavis Smiley shared with Maya Angelou, he learned the renowned writer’s views on life and how to live it to the fullest.
One year after Angelou’s death, TV and radio host Smiley is joining with Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon to develop a stage adaptation of “My Journey With Maya,” Smiley’s new memoir about the invaluable relationship.
“I haven’t been this excited by a project in a long, long time,” Leon said. “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.”
Angelou, a poet, professor and author of the acclaimed 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” had much to share with a young man eager to grow, Smiley said. He was 21 and she was 58 when they first met in the mid-1980s.
“We find our path by walking it,” Angelou told him repeatedly over the years, he recounted. She also said that “nothing human is alien to me.”
“That was her way of saying, ‘Live your life on your own terms. Don’t be afraid to try anything. Experience everything,’” Smiley said.
He and Leon, who are starting their search for a writer for the play, said it’s premature to discuss casting.
The pair will be working around other projects, which for Leon includes directing the newly announced TV and Broadway versions of the 1970s hit musical “The Wiz.” Leon won a Tony for the 2014 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Denzel Washington.
Smiley is the host of PBS’ “Tavis Smiley” and Public Radio International’s “The Tavis Smiley Show,” a writer whose other books include 2014’s “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year” and founder of a nonprofit foundation tackling poverty in America.
The release of “My Journey With Maya,” co-written with David Ritz and out next Tuesday from publisher Little, Brown, coincides with the first-day-of-issuance ceremony in Washington for a Forever postage stamp honoring Angelou.
The book is filled with Angelou’s words and Smiley’s remembrances of what she meant to him at difficult moments in his life. But there were conflicts as well: He writes of a 2008 call from Angelou expressing “a bit of alarm” that Smiley’s broadcasts were pressing Democratic nominee Barack Obama too hard on the issues as he sought to become the first African-American president.
Smiley said he defended his obligation to hold all candidates up to scrutiny, and his friendship with Angelou remained intact.
Echoing Leon, Smiley said he believes her range of achievements — in fields ranging from acting to writing to teaching and more — are unparalleled.
“I’ve been saying for the longest time she may be the greatest renaissance woman in black America. But I’m really wrestling with whether or not she may be the greatest renaissance woman, period,” Smiley said.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.