When people hear the title “Mama Juggs”, they don’t expect to be inspired — but that’s exactly what the story does.
The play, which will be performed at Health Touch NC LLC in Durham Friday night, is a one-woman show by North Carolina journalist Anita Shontel Woodley that follows three generations of women in her family as they struggle with breast cancer, body image, death and motherhood in the Oakland projects.
Woodley, who serves as the play’s screenwriter, director and cast, said the play is based entirely on true events.
“The inspiration comes from my mother and great-grandmother,” she said.
When Woodley’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer while Woodley was a college freshman, Woodley said she began filming her mother up until her death at the age of 47. She said she promised her mother she would do something with the film, but she didn’t know what.
Years later, when Woodley attended an informal meeting where writers read their work, she recited a scene entirely from memory in which her great-grandmother sang to her while breastfeeding.
Although this was the first time artist Bud Rudesill meet Woodley, he immediately saw something special in her performance.
“It blew me away. It was something so small and simple, and she created something that is so profound and deep,” he said.
Rudesill said he e-mailed Woodley, encouraging her to write a script. After some convincing, Anita turned the five-minute scene a full script in about four hours.
“It was like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ — she planted a seed, and one morning she woke up and there was a beanstalk,” he said.
Rudesill offered to have the production staged in his backyard, but he said by the time the script went through a few edits, the potential audience had grown so large they had to rent a theater.
“Anita listened to my ideas and realized something a hell of a lot bigger,” Rudesill said.
“I helped her a bit in getting the production staged, but really after she went home and started writing it, it was her baby.”
The show has been performed in a lot of places since its first days — in front of nuns in Chicago, Off-Broadway, in a 100-year-old barn in Vermont, even for Woodley’s maternal tribe in Cameroon, Africa.
Paul Paliyenko has been one of the few people involved in the production. Since Paliyenko has a background in theatre, he’s helped Woodley with lighting design and given her performance advice. Paliyenko said much of the funding for “Mama Juggs” came out of Woodley’s own pocket.
Paliyenko said although Woodley has really grown as an actress, her lack of acting experience was never an obstacle.
“She could basically do this show in her room with one light bulb and a cord and still have people mesmerized,” he said.
Woodley said audiences have been affected by her portrayal of breast cancer — men and women alike. Woodley said her own mother didn’t get the help she needed, so she wants to motivate other women to get help.
“It’s important to care of yourself,” she said. “Take whatever precautions you need to do so you can still be here for the days and years after.”
Woodley said she works with a variety of grassroots breast cancer organizations and donates 10 percent of ticket sales to breast cancer organizations.
“I wanna be part of the bigger conversation about breast cancer.”
Although the show is very personal, Woodley said it helped her to process her grief for her mother and great-grandmother.
“That transition was really difficult because I don’t know how to deal with them not being here. It’s difficult, but at the same time it’s really wasn’t because I don’t have to miss them.” said Woodley.
“In my mind, we’re all together.”
See the performance 7:30 p.m. Friday at Health Touch NC, LLC, in Durham. Tickets are $15 to $35 dollars, and 10 percent of proceeds go toward breast cancer organizations.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.