On the eve of the memorial service for Dr Angelou, I’m reposting this essay about producing her autobiographical Master Class episode for OWN.
Though my heart is heavy and full, it was an honor to know her even for a moment. Rest in Peace, Phenomenal Woman.
- Selected Works:
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
- Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971)
- Gather Together in My Name (1974)
- Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975)
- And Still I Rise (1978)
- The Heart of a Woman (1981)
- All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
- “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993)
- Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women (1995)
- A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)
- Mom & Me & Mom (2013)
(originally posted February 17, 2012)
Last year I had the amazing good fortune to produce the flagship series “Oprah’s Master Class” for the new network OWN. It was a privilege to dive deep into the lives of such accomplished people. I have just learned that it won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Series.
I’ve heard it said many times that in order to grow, we need to stretch ourselves, and this series pulled me in so many directions. At times I was jumping among as many as 5 edit rooms at once and crisscrossing the country to grab interviews as we told the stories of Diane Sawyer, Jay Z, Sidney Poitier and Oprah Winfrey herself. Putting together 10 hours of television for a brand new network was not easy, and it required the effort of a lot of smart, talented people on the MC team.
My favorite episode is Dr. Maya Angelou’s, and Alyse Spiegel did an amazing job editing earlier versions and nailing the structure, which didn’t change much from the final piece that aired.
This episode was also one of the most challenging for me in part because of the research and her prolific body of work. I felt overwhelmed by the weight of her accomplishments. How can you take an entire life and boil it down to an hour of television? Because this series is called Master Class, Ms. Winfrey wanted us to focus on life lessons – lessons that helped to guide them or teach them through trial and error along the way.
The lesson that was the most striking for me was the importance of finding your passion. It sounds trite, but I felt like Dr. Angelou was speaking to me personally. Our talented archival producer, Stephanie Palumbo, secured the rights to an obscure film of young Maya singing and dancing as “Miss Caylpso” in 1957. Here was a woman early in her career, oozing Calypso cool in her column dress and bare feet, a world away from the poet laureate she would become. In our interview Dr. Angelou says, “I had loved to dance, I was a dancer and then my knees went bad and I had to give it up. As a young woman, the only thing I ever loved was dancing and writing. I didn’t love singing. I wouldn’t sacrifice for singing. You can only become great at that thing you’re willing to sacrifice for.” Amen!
We conducted the interview at her home in North Carolina. After it was over and the crew were breaking down the lights, I noticed Dr. Angelou sitting by herself at the dining room table doing a crossword puzzle and drinking a glass of wine; so I went over, and we had a chat that lasted nearly an hour. It was lovely to learn that as much as she enjoys telling a story, she loves hearing one, too. I told her that “The Heart of a Woman” was my favorite of her books. Suddenly, the generations between us dissolved as we swapped stories about boyfriends past. I’ll never forget how she threw her head back and laughed at a spectacularly disastrous relationship that I was describing. I will cherish the moment always.