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United States-Theatre

Bringing the life of Maya Angelou to France

Ursuline Kairson (in the middle) performs Maya Angelou in the play 'Maya, une voix,' or 'Maya, a voice,' 20 July 2019
Ursuline Kairson (in the middle) performs Maya Angelou in the play 'Maya, une voix,' or 'Maya, a voice,' 20 July 2019 Christina Okello for RFI

Ursuline Kairson plays Pulitzer-Prize nominated poet and late author Maya Angelou in the play Maya, une voix, or Maya, a voice. The life of the American icon still remains relatively unknown in France, something that Kairson would like to see change.

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"I was very nervous and concerned about doing the role justice," says Ursuline Kairson on stepping into the shoes of Maya Angelou.

"She is an icon. However, I was honoured," said the American singer and actress who has been based in Paris for over 20 years.

Kairson leads an all female-cast in the play Maya, une voix or Maya, a voice directed by South African theatre director Eric Bouvron.

The project was born after a series of workshops and determination on Kairson’s part. "I did everything. I sang a song, I read a poem, I talked and talked and talked, because I wanted to be taken."

Her consistency paid off and she eventually caught the eye of Eric Bouvron, joining four other women from culturally diverse backgrounds.

"It’s a woman’s story," says Kairson, and it is told entirely by women. "It was Eric Bouvron’s decision," she adds, saying that some audience members had been taken aback to see women playing the role of men.

Seeing gender is missing the point. The story line is replete with themes of resilience and women empowerment, in a play that embraces the activism that Maya Angelou so dearly espoused.

US' Maya Angelou finally arrives in Paris

Still relevant

"We can be mentors in our own special way, and empower and support other women as they are searching and looking for who they might be," comments Kairson, referring to a chance encounter between Maya Angelou and a woman who introduced her to the world of literature and poetry.

It was thanks to this "fortuitous" encounter that Angelou recovered her voice, having lost it due to the trauma of suffering rape.

"She did lose her voice for 5 years because there was a trial and ultimately this man was relased from jail and he was killed. And she thought the fact that she had spoken had caused him to die," explains Kairson.

Angelou channelled her tragic experience into art to produce iconic texts such as I know why a caged bird sings, or Still I rise.

Her message of resilience is still relevant today, reckons Kairson, although regrets that it remains unknown in France.

"She merits being known here because she was an extraordinary woman. From where she began, it wasn’t written that she would become what she became."

Not only was she a writer, a poet, a playwright, Angelou also performed in shows, producing her first album Calypso in 1957, which went on to inspire the film Calyspo Heat Wave. Angelou also worked as an activist alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Digging deep

In 2010, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former US President Barack Obama for her role in the civil rights movement and her literary works.

"Self-worth is a very important," continues Kairson. "She did not let that one tragic event determine who she would become."

It is a lesson that others can follow, reckons the actress.

"We all have little gold mines within ourselves. We don’t just have one thing, we have very many things. (…) Explore, find out who’s in there and what’s in there," she said.

The play Maya, une voix or Maya, a voice ends Saturday 27 July, showing at 21:30 at the Essaion theatre in Paris

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