NEWSPAPER: Vermont – “Mama Juggs: On black women and their bodies”

   

‘Mama Juggs’: On black women and their bodies

By Janet Hubbard
Arts Correspondent – Published: August 6, 2010

Actress Anita Woodley (producer of the nationally syndicated radio show “The Story with Dick Gordon”), is coming to the Phantom Theater in Warren to present her one-woman show, “Mama Juggs: Three Generations Healing Negative Body Images.”

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.”

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