The Breast of Times at Paul Robeson This Weekend
“Mama Juggs” is a one-woman show all about breasts.
By Stephen Brown | April 21, 2011
This weekend, an homage to mothers like none other is coming to the historic Paul Robeson Theater.
“Mama Juggs,” a one-woman play about breasts through the generations, will be performed by the multi-talented Rie Shontel on Friday and Saturday.
The actress, who hails from Oakland and currently works in North Carolina for the local NPR affiliate, said that her inspiration comes from the strong females figures in her life, starting with her great-grandmother.
“While I was breastfeeding in our housing project in Oakland my grandma would be sitting across the room singing about it!” Shontel said. “She was teaching me. She’d say, ‘OK, you’re doing this wrong, you’re doing this right. Now you’re killing him!’”
The experience turned out to be an artistic goldmine. “My husband said instead of getting mad, write it down,” Shontel added. And those notes from her early experiences became “Mama Juggs,” a play that features Shontel playing three African-American women struggling with breast cancer, (her mother) poverty, (her grandmother) and late puberty and breast-feeding (herself). Interspersed through Shontel’s portrayals of the three women are actual breast-feeding songs sung by her great-grandmother, Suga Babe. Shontel said people really take a liking to the elderly character, and are often anxious to get on stage during the interactive portions of the show.
“It’s about a universal language of mothers — everyone’s got a mama,” she said. “Anyone who is looking to expand, and evolve will [like the play]. That’s what my family did, they did it in poverty, and they did it damn well.”
(Feb. 24, 2011) In a week where radio talker Rush Limbaugh saw fit to note that First Lady Michelle Obama “does not project the image of women that you might see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue,” perhaps it is appropriate to again begin the conversation on the damaging and distorted American view of what constitutes a healthy female body. Okay. Who wants to start?
On Thursday, Feb. 24 and Friday, Feb. 25, journalist and actress ‘rie Shontel (pronounced “Ree,” born Anita Morgan-Woodley) will bring her provocative one-woman show about black female body image titled Mama Juggs: Three Generations Healing Negative Body Images to HSU’s Studio Theatre (second floor of the Theatre Arts Building). Both shows start at 8 p.m. and are free.
The characters in Juggs are an amalgamation of three generations of women in Shontel’s family who inspired her growing up. Her mother — from whom the “‘rie” nickname is derived — died of breast cancer in 1998 at 47 years old. When her great-grandmother passed away at age 100 in 2008, ‘rie wanted to celebrate their influence and crafted the Mama Juggs character who dwells in East Oakland’s housing projects known as “Funk Town.”
The show questions cultural taboos within the black community while featuring discussion of late-puberty bra stuffing and a cappella songs about the frustrations of breastfeeding passed down from ‘ries’ great-grandmother Suga Babe. A “talk back” session with Shontel follows each show. Shontel doesn’t hold back — promotional material for the performance warns of “adult language.”
For those interested, ‘rie will also participate in a discussion of her work and experiences on Friday before the show from 3-4 p.m. in the Squad Room of the Communications Department.
KPFA-FM 94.1 – Women’s Magazine
December 27, 2010
An exciting round table on women and work; Mama Juggs: 3 Generations of Healing Negative Body ImageClick to listen (or download) ###
Oakland’s Anita Woodley returns home with award-winning playPublished on Thursday, December 23, 2010Last updated on 11:46AM, Friday, December 24, 2010
by Niema Jordan
Shontel transitions seamlessly into her great grandmother’s voice singing, “That’s not how you do it/You’re gonna kill that baby with that milk.” The first few minutes chatting with the journalist who grew up in Funktown on 13th Avenue and East 17th is filled with laughter. She share’s some of most memorable interactions with the woman who inspired “Mama Juggs: Three Generations Healing Negative Body Image,” which shows Wednesday and Thursday – Dec. 29 and 30 – at the Black Dot Café in Oakland.
“My husband said ‘Baby, get a notepad and write these songs down,’” recalls Woodley who revisited the songs at a gathering of artists. “I sat on the stool in the middle of a living room and started singing ‘use breast milk in the breast jug’ and people fell out. I mean the people were on the floor laid out laughing.” But when a partygoer suggested that she turn the songs into a play she responded, “I’m a journalist, not an actor.”
More than a year, several awards and 30 performances later, Woodley is still sharing through theatre the story of her life with her mother and great grandmother and the lessons she learned about womanhood and body image.
“Everything in the play is real,” she explains. But no show is the same.
“Once I performed three shows in a row and at least five people came to each of the shows and they said, ‘We just love it because it’s a different show,’” says Woodley. “I’m going on the energy and I’m pulling people up, just like Grandma’s house. If you go to Grandmas house, she is going to put you to work.”
From the comedic moments of a 9 year old stuffing her bra for the first time to the difficult routine of a woman living with breast cancer and changing the gauze for her wounds, Woodley weaves a story that audiences connect with on many levels.
“People are getting what they need. It’s beautiful. It’s education without being preachy,” she says noting that the play is a great release going into the New Year. “You are ready to create, you’re ready to let go, you’re ready to cry and whatever happened this year, you are going to wrap it up in those 90 minutes.”
Thursday, August 12, 2010
MAMA JUGGS OPENING AT PHANTOM THEATER
By Janet Hubbard
Immediately after graduating from San Francisco State, she was hired as an associate producer at CNN; following 9/11 she left CNN and was on her way up the ladder at Barnes & Noble when she applied for a job as producer of the nationally-syndicated show, The Story, and was hired by Dick Gordon. After working fifty hours a week enterprising stories, interviewing potential storytellers, and then producing those stories, she found herself one night entertaining a group of friends with a song her great-grandmother made up called “Titty Milk-Titty Jugg.” (‘Rie Shontel, now in her 30s, recalled her grandmother accusing her of having inferior breasts as a teen because most African-American women in their family had big breasts.) Cultural issues around breasts cropped up again after ‘rie Shontel had a son in 2003, and later when her mother died of breast cancer, and the subject of breasts became universal.‘Rie Shontel, AKA Anita Woodley, whose one-woman show—“Mama Juggs: Three Generations Healing Negative Body Images”—opens at Phantom Theater in Warren on August 12th , grew up in the projects in Oakland, California in the 1980s during the drug wars. The neighborhood she grew up in was so dangerous that her mother made her go to bed at 4:30 p.m. The precocious little girl, who was raised and nurtured in a matriarchal community comprised of her mother, aunts and great-grandmother, began to read early at age one and started teaching other kids when she was seven. This was a child who was going to go somewhere.
In 2009 when she was again entertaining a group of friends with her mother and great-grandmother’s “characters,” one of them suggested she write a play. She went home and the next day she wrote “Mama Juggs” in four hours. For the next several months, she rehearsed and revised the script beginning at three in the morning. Once she had it down, she performed for friends who found themselves laughing and crying at the same time. (The men were as affected as the women, and that has remained true throughout her tour.) Next she rented a theater and performed for 65 people, and received a long standing ovation. This has been true of the more than forty performances she has given, including one for her family in Oakland where her Aunt Alvernice exclaimed, “Your mama came down and jumped into the show!”
‘Rie Shontel seamlessly segues in and out of the roles of three generations of black women—her great-grandmother, her mother and herself as a teen and as a nursing mother. One male playgoer in Chapel Hill said that if anyone wanted an authentic glimpse into black culture, this was the show to see. What the playwright wants is for her audiences to feel some degree of healing in any form. Just to make sure, before each show she walks around the theater, touching every seat and corner to spread her intention around.
A recent study suggested that people born into wealth are naturally free and entitled. Producer Anita Woodley takes nothing for granted, though it seems she was born with a sense of optimism and prodigious energy. She has won several radio awards for her work on The Story, and quickly acknowledges the hundreds of people on The Story who have inspired her own work, including her art, which Dick Gordon has displayed in the WUNC studio. When I was on the show last April with an indigent artist I had discovered in my hometown, Ray Matthews, Woodley sat at the computer with tears slipping down her cheeks. Both she and Gordon attended an opening exhibit of Matthews in Chapel Hill. They are genuine in their caring for others. Never one to let dreams fade, Woodley has just returned from Cameroon, where she had another name bestowed on her, “Bekang,” which means boomerang. She went to find her maternal roots before enslavement, and it turned out to be a moment of discovery that is already budding in her mind as a new play.
Mama Juggs opens Thursday, August 12th and runs through Saturday, August 14th. Tickets can be ordered by calling Phantom Theater, 496-5997, and leaving a message, or by going to www.phantomtheater.info.
‘Mama Juggs’: On black women and their bodiesBy Janet Hubbard
Arts Correspondent – August 6, 2010
Without leaving the stage, Shontel acts out three generations of women in her family: her grandmother, who died at age 100; her mother, who died of breast cancer at age 47; and two versions of herself, one as a teenager and the other as a nursing mother. It is as if she incarnates her mother and grandmother, so effortlessly does she switch between them.
In her 30s now, Woodley began life in a housing project in Oakland, Calif., the only daughter between two sons, all with different fathers. She rarely saw the sunshine because her mother was so worried about the dangers around them.
“We had to be in bed by 4:30,” Woodley said. “It was torture to hear everybody playing outside.” But today she appreciates her mother’s protection. “There were a lot of parents addicted to crack-cocaine,” she said. “I grew up in the drug wars.” Woodley recalls her first acting gig, playing Rosa Parks when she was in kindergarten. “I was always entertaining,” she said. Though her mother, Mable Glenn, was self-conscious about her own lack of education, and mispronounced words on a regular basis, she wanted her little girl to be educated.
Woodley said her greatest influence was her great-grandmother, who lived alone, and whose days were filled with quilting, raising “huge, fat” worms, pressing hair, making jelly and cakes, and maintaining a big garden. The kids were sent out on the street to pick up cans, which they could turn in for cash. They were poor, there was no question about it, but Woodley doesn’t recall going hungry. “She did that for years.”
Woodley only saw her father every three to five years because he was on the road constantly as a truck driver. “All I had was a truck-driving certificate and a picture of him,” she said. “He was full of promises. He would tell me he was coming and I’d sit on the stairs and wait, sometimes for 10 to 12 hours.” Woodley and her mother’s boyfriend, Bobby Joe Murphy, developed a close bond. He was there throughout her high school years, and showed up at all her award ceremonies. “He’d go to Goodwill and get clothes so he’d look all right,” Woodley said. “My Mama would be home cooking.” (Woodley’s favorites were butterbeans with grape jelly and German chocolate cake.) “Mama didn’t think she was smart enough to attend awards ceremonies,” especially after Woodley graduated from San Francisco State University.
Woodley first performed “Mama Juggs” in her living room in front of her husband Alassane and her two godparents. She sang a song, “Titty Juggs,” which was what her grandmother called women’s breasts. (Recently, a group of black women was offended by the term, but she reminded them that this is her history – and their history – that is meant to be embraced.) At a social gathering in 2009, Woodley did a takeoff on the “Titty Milksong” and everyone howled laughing. A friend suggested she write a play. Though Woodley was at first resistant, she said that her mind started “jogging.” The next day she wrote “Mama Juggs” in four hours. “It felt like I was downloading my past,” she said, “listening to the women around me talk.”
Woodley started waking up at three in the morning in order to revise the play and when she did a reading of it her friends were moved to laughter and tears. She rented a theater and presented the play. Sixty people showed up and gave her a “one-minute-30-second” standing ovation. Woodley performed for her family in Oakland on June 26, 2009, and her Aunt Vernice said, “Your mama came down and jumped into the show!” There was no better validation.
There is no question that Woodley’s years producing the nationally syndicated show, “The Story,” helped her form her own story. For that program she has to “keep all her senses open, and be alert on all levels,” as she listens to others’ stories. She just took a trip to Cameroon to find her roots, and since her return she said that she has grown very quiet. “I learned 46 words in three weeks,” she said. “Now I am so quiet I’m getting on my own nerves.”
Woodley isn’t worried; she says that some part of her is absorbing the past months of performing and travel. Besides, she has at least five plays tumbling around in her mind. Woodley’s boss, Dick Gordon, said, “No one gets standing ovations for every show! This is something special!”
What is the magic? “I set an intention,” she said. “All I know is what I was taught on my own spiritual journey – go for the heart and the feeling. I set the intention that people who are troubled are touched, and that they experience healing.” Then she gave away her secret: “Before the show I go under the seats. I touch that place. Something will happen, and people will feel.”
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2010
One-woman play tells 3 life stories
Anita Woodley is using three generations of breasts to travel back to her roots. It is a journey that has already taken her to an undiscovered part of herself.
Her one-woman show, “Mama Juggs: Three Generations Healing Negative Body Images,” is about her mother, great-grandmother and herself as they deal with puberty, breast cancer and breast feeding while on a path toward conquering low self-esteem. Proceeds from the play will support her trip to Cameroon, Africa, where she will perform the play in front of the Tikar people, her family’s ancestral tribe. Woodley, 34, who lives in Chapel Hill, never thought all of this would come out of one song. But one person thought she had the potential to do more.
A vision expands
It was a renaissance type of party. Artists, intellectuals and the like gathering inside a Durham home in January 2009 to perform and wax poetic.Woodley, invited by a friend, brought a piece of paper from a box of her great-grandmother’s things. The words were for a breast-feeding song she used to sing.Woodley sat on a stool in the middle of the living room and sang in her great-grandmother’s elderly voice. She followed the song with an improvised monologue, playing the older woman and herself as a young mother.
“And they started dying laughing,” she said. Bud Rudesill, a Pittsboro artist, was impressed. He had an idea to build a stage in his backyard for small performances, and he asked Woodley to consider expanding her skit. The next morning she wrote an entire play in four hours.
“I’m told that’s not normal, but I don’t get how that’s not normal if I did it,” she said. The pair met a few days later. The play surprised Rudesill, who was just looking for a skit. Woodley also told a few friends about the play, who told their friends, and so on. The idea quickly became too big for Rudesill’s backyard.
Art as therapy
Character placement. Audience reaction. Plot development. Performing on stage alone.
These things were new and interesting to Woodley. She did a first reading of her play last March in front of her husband, 4-year-old son, and Rudesill and his wife. They loved it.“It felt absolutely amazing,” she said. “I was like, I could do anything. I was still in shock over how I sung this one song and was thinking about my great-grandmother and how I was missing her. She was here with me because I was really channeling her, and they got it.”
A few months later, a co-worker introduced her to Issa Nypahaga, who runs Hope International for Tikar People, a nonprofit that provides resources to the Tikar tribe in Cameroon.
In 2008, Woodley, through DNA testing, discovered her family came from the Tikar tribe. She e-mailed Nypahaga about the play in November. He invited her to perform in front of the tribe. “I’m proud to know her because she came from a very difficult experience as a woman, because her mother passed away very young and she has seen generations of women in her family struggling with the history of “mind body,” he said via e-mail from Paris. “Now she’s putting that in the show and makes fun of it,” he said. “I think is great. That’s how Anita cures herself, through art therapy. This is how art should be.”
Seeing where it takes her
She did the show for the first time in June, and then in front of her family in Oakland a few days later.
On a cold, wet night last month about 10 people braved the winter weather to watch Woodley perform the piece at the Common Ground Theatre on Hillsborough Road in Durham. They watched her seamlessly shift between her mother, great-grandmother and herself as a teenager, then as a young mother. Until Nypahaga’s invitation, she thought it would be a one-time thing. She’s still surprised by the popularity of her show. “I’m going to ride this pony until it kicks me off,” she said. “And it’s demanding me to do it. Every time I put the play down there’s another opportunity to perform.”
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2009
Mama Juggs was featured on the Wanda’s Picks show to promote her upcoming one night only performance of “Mama Juggs” at The Marsh Theater in San Francisco, CA. Listen in as Wanda Sabir get’s the scoop on Anita’s childhood in Oakland, California.
(Interview Starts after Opening Song)
LISTEN!! Click here
July 18, 2009
Drama, drama, drama: an interview with thespian Rie Shontelby Minister of Information JR
Drama has been a valuable art form to the Black experience in Amerikkka since before slavery. It was one of the ways that we maintained our history, although huge segments of the population couldn’t read or aren’t reading. I have only been to a few theatrical plays, but I love cinema, with some of the best dramatized movies to me being “dead presidents,” “Brown Sugar” and “Juice.” I think that living in the low income Black community and speaking with expression goes hand and hand. Then, if you add youngstas mimicking the old folks, dramatization is an instinctual homegrown art form in the ghetto. The artist who goes by the name of Rie Shontel is one of few I’ve seen who has been able to capture this ghetto art form and put it on the stage, and she is currently in the process of making a career out of it. Check her out as she talks about her one-woman play, “Mama Juggs,” and her life as a thespian.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us about how you got into doing drama?
Rie Shontel: It all started in the living room of our East Oakland, California, housing apartment project on 13th Avenue in an area called “Funktown.” My mama would wake me in the middle of the night to entertain her friends while they played spades and drank Hennessey in the living room. I loved to pretend I was my mama hiding the colored television moments before the housing authority’s annual inspection. I also liked to pretend I was Whoopi Goldberg in “The Color Purple,” in the scene where she tried to stab Mister (Danny Glover). My mama and her friends would belly laugh at my portrayals and then my mama would say, “All right, now. Take yo’ ass back to bed. You got school tomorrow!” I lived to bring laughter to people who were otherwise crying about living in poverty. I learned to tell their stories and we all laughed about how insane life was in our community. I began living vicariously though their street-life experiences and embraced it as an opportunity to bypass many of the realities life in the projects presented. You know, many people in my community put me on their backs so that I could be the “one” to get out the projects. And for that I am forever grateful.
M.O.I. JR: What is the name and purpose behind your one-woman play? How did you come up with it?
Rie Shontel: My one-woman play is called “Mama Juggs: Three Generations Healing Fractured Images.” The purpose of this play is to celebrate how women in my family dealt with womanhood through their breasts. I play four characters: My great-grandma at 100, myself at 17, my mama at 47, and myself as a new mama at 27. Through them, I transport the audience into an intimate view of how the women in my family faced body image through late puberty, breast cancer, old age and breast-feeding. I was inspired to write and perform “Mama Juggs” by my late great-grandma Suga. She would make up original, a cappella songs about everything-I-was-doing-wrong while breastfeeding. That mess used to drive me crazy, but I decided to write them down as part of my family’s history. A few years later, I sang the song she called “Titty Milk, Titty Juggs” at the Poetic Grove at the Eastmont Mall and it was a hit.
When I sang the song again at an artist gathering in North Carolina, one of the artists suggested I turn it into a play. The next day, I wrote the entire play in four hours flat. I then practiced it for six months for performances in Durham, North Carolina, and Oakland, California. This all started because of the impression my great-grandma’s songs had on me.
M.O.I. JR: I understand that you are a college graduate. Has your degree helped you in your creative endeavors?
Rie Shontel: Yes, most definitely. I graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in broadcast and electronic communications with an emphasis on radio and television. It has enhanced my ability to take the knowledge I learned from observing elders, pimps, single mothers and drug addicts and apply it to the field of journalism.
In my career, Bay Area journalists such as Pam Moore and Belva Davis, to name a few, have mentored me. They taught me to be fearless in my creative pursuits and to believe I could rise above any circumstances. Several months after graduating magna cum laude from SFSU, I got a job at CNN-Atlanta as an associate producer.
M.O.I. JR: What has the response been among young Black women specifically and the public in general?
Rie Shontel: The feedback from young Black women has been tremendously positive. When I told them I was singing original songs by my 100-year-old great-grandma they responded, “I’m there, girlfriend!” And another sista said, “Hearing your mom talk about having breast cancer made me go home, take off my t-shirt, get in the mirror and rub my breasts looking for lumps, girl! Thank you.”Generally, people say “Mama Juggs” taught them new facts about breast health and body image. Men who watched the play say they did not know they could get breast cancer. In the play, grandma talks about talk show host Montel Williams having a double mastectomy as a teenager.
M.O.I. JR: Where are you taking your drama skills? What is your goal as a thespian?
Rie Shontel: Because of the growing interest in “Mama Juggs,” my goal as a thespian is to perform the play in as many communities and venues as I can. Eventually, I wish to perform for breast cancer survivors, both men and women, worldwide.
M.O.I. JR: What are some of your favorite Black plays? Who are some of your favorite actors and actresses?
Rie Shontel: My love of Black plays started when I found a copy of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” while digging through a pile of dumped clothes in West Oakland. While attending Oakland Technical High School, I was introduced to August Wilson’s play “Fences” by my drama teacher, Mr. Hamner. I am also moved by these three one-person plays: “Pretty Fire” by Charlayne Woodard; “Sometimes I Cry” by Sheryl Lee Ralph; and “A Tribute to Martin Luther King” by Barry Scott. Some my favorite actors and performers include Don Cheadle, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington, Jill Scott, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and Samuel L. Jackson.