Over her nearly 40-year career, Vanessa Williams has proved herself to be a master of reinvention. In 1983, she made history as the first African-American woman to be crowned Miss America, and later that decade she became a chart-topping musician with multiple platinum albums and a slew of Grammy nominations. From there, she moved on to theatre, television and film acting — appearing most memorably as the witch in the 2002 Broadway revival of the musical “Into the Woods” and as the scheming magazine director Wilhelmina Slater in the TV series “Ugly Betty” — and in more recent years, she has co-written a memoir and introduced a fashion line. Now 56, the actress is embarking on yet another stage project: starring in a new production of the musical comedy “City of Angels,” which is currently in previews at the Garrick Theater in London.
So it seems fitting that for the latest instalment of the video series “Read T a Poem,” which arrives two days ahead of International Women’s Day, Williams chose to honour a pioneering Renaissance woman of an earlier generation: the poet, author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Though Angelou, born in St. Louis in 1928, was best known for her poems and memoirs, she was also a prolific screenwriter, cookbook author, actor, dancer, film director, composer, calypso singer and pop-cultural star. She won a Tony (for her role as Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and a seamstress and confidante to the first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, in the 1973 Broadway play “Look Away”), an Emmy (for her supporting role in the 1977 TV mini-series “Roots”) and several Grammys for her spoken-word albums. Though, above all, it is her poetry that endures.
Williams’s selection, “Phenomenal Woman,” was published in 1978, first in Cosmopolitan and later that year in the collection “And Still I Rise.” In it, Angelou proclaims, in simple, declarative verse, her physical and spiritual allure as a black woman. In her later years, Angelou made a recording of herself reading the poem — her famous husky drawl measured and stately — but here, Williams animates Angelou’s words with a charismatic recitation that is all her own.
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