Oakland’s native daughter: an interview wit’ thespian and playwright Anita Woodley

by The People’s Minister of Information JR

Anita Woodley is a very talented and self-taught North Carolina-based thespian and playwright who was brought up in Oakland, California, and is returning to perform her two award winning plays, “Mama Juggs” and “The Men in Me,” at the New Parish on Sunday, Aug. 17. Since becoming a full-time artist, this family woman has learned a lot about herself and her craft, and that is exactly why I wanted to sit down with her and expose SF Bay View readers to the talent of Anita Woodley, who will be in town performing for only one night. Check out her out in her own words.

Anita Woodley in “Mama Juggs” – Photo: Stan Chambers Jr. Photography
Anita Woodley in “Mama Juggs” – Photo: Stan Chambers Jr. Photography

M.O.I. JR: Can you tell the people when you decided to become a full-time artist? What prompted that feeling?

Anita Woodley: It was two years ago, in October 2012, when I decided to be a fulltime artist. At the time I was working as a producer for an NPR affiliate in North Carolina. They have a first-person narrative news program called “The Story with Dick Gordon.”

I had been a working journalist for 13 years, including assignments at CNN in Atlanta, KMTP TV in San Francisco and KRON TV, right here. Honestly, I was successful and challenged – I was honored with awards from a good number of national journalism institutions and recognized six consecutive years as the top national producer of Interviews and Discussion in Network Radio by my Black journalists peers.

But I was also facing some of my darkest years in this profession. Unbelievably, the work came to require struggle through a couple years of racial and sexual harassment in my workplace. I had two choices, to either depart the profession I enjoyed, or perish internally. And I chose myself.

Despite how scary the move was at the time, I am grateful I took a chance on using my God-given talents to take care of my family and me. Now I look back, and am thankful for that experience, as well. Without it, I could not write an honestly true performance.

M.O.I. JR: What have some of your high points and low points been in pursuing that path?

Anita Woodley: High points have been meeting people from around the world and traveling. Also growing as a human through my artistry has been awesome. Low points, that I have labeled as such, I no longer view that way. A few years back, I started thinking of these moments as “Adventures and Discoveries.”

Now, this does not mean that I no longer have those trains of thoughts that precede pity parties from these perceived low points. I’ve just learned to label them as such and put them on their proper shelves.

The ability to transform my thinking came to fruition through great friends like Talib Wafeeq and my high school drama teacher from Oakland Technical High School, Hambone Andy Hamner. These cats are sharp and have assisted me in evolving rapidly. I’m forever grateful.

Anita Woodley
Anita Woodley

M.O.I. JR: What do you plan to do at the New Parish when you come to Oakland this time?

Anita Woodley: It’s been two years since I have played to my Oakland people, and I was excited to learn about an opening at the New Parish. I will be performing my now award-winning show, “The Men in Me,” and my original “Mama Juggs,” which just celebrated its fifth anniversary. Both of the pieces have grown immensely, artistically, as I continue to remove myself and allow the characters to breathe, make mistakes, experience happiness and feel their own pain before the audience’s eyes.

“Mama Juggs” and “The Men in Me” are complementary works that explore the trials and triumphs of Black folk. “The Men in Me” tells the stories of Black men – young and old, straight and gay, liberated and incarcerated – who hunger to grow beyond bleak circumstances and dismal statistics.

Their chosen roads, whether dead-ending or circling back – or opening up – helped shape Woodley into the woman she is today. This show features original social justice poetry and opens with the hit song “Game” by special guest Augusta Lee Collins from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame.

“Mama Juggs” channels the voices of three generations of Black women within one family as they struggle with bra stuffing, breastfeeding and last stage breast cancer – all in the context of the social and economic adversity of the Oakland projects, in an area known by locals as Funktown.

Written from a promise to my mother, who died before age 50 of breast cancer, “Mama Juggs” seeks to challenge cultural taboos and stereotypes about breast health and body image. I wrestled with these issues and now use diverse theatrical styles to share and explore our common issues.

You’ll hear a cappella Negro spirituals, comic takes, straight talk, improvisation with audience interaction. This show will open with an excerpt from “Go Tell It: A Harriet Tubman Story” by Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu.

An audience member is invited to come up and touch grandma’s hair. In “Mama Juggs” and her other one-woman shows, Anita plays several characters.
An audience member is invited to come up and touch grandma’s hair. In “Mama Juggs” and her other one-woman shows, Anita plays several characters.

M.O.I. JR: Where are you going after California?

Anita Woodley: I am headed back to North Carolina to perform in Durham at the Carolina Theatre. It would be equivalent to the Fox Theatre here in Oakland. I’m excited about this new “ethnodrama” that I am writing for FHI 360, a non-profit research group dedicated to improving lives in lasting ways by advancing integrated, locally driven solutions.

The new one-woman play is called “Bucking the Medical and Mental Bull.” FHI 360 provided me with feedback collected in their various focus groups with Black males about their real medical experiences in the Durham healthcare systems.

“Bucking the Medical and Mental Bull” is a character-driven, true-life drama about African-American men from all walks of life who have had challenging or limited treatment in the American health care system. Circumstance and cultural history encourage them to risk untimely deaths in hopes of preserving “posed” pride. I also will perform again in one of Norfolk, Virginia’s Historically Black Colleges, Norfolk State University.

M.O.I. JR: What have people’s responses been to your two plays?

Anita Woodley: I must tell you, at every performance I get standing ovations. My friends who are in theatre have told me such a response is not usual, and I am more humble and appreciative of the love that the audiences show me. It is very, very difficult and trying work. Yet it is doable and a passion of mine.

I’ve also had some folks who were not ready for the subject matter. For instance, with “Mama Juggs” I share the story of my 47-year-old mother dying of breast cancer after being too afraid to go to the doctor. One woman at a show said that I had no right to share my mother’s intimate story in the public. When I explained to her that she gave me her permission, documented on video, she apologized.

Then she told me that she just lost her sister two months previously to breast cancer and that, perhaps, it was too early to see the show because it brought back too many memories too soon. But I have to do the show and hope people find their path of understanding and acceptance.

Concerning “The Men in Me” show, guys rave about the show and love how I represent them. The stories are from my brothers and other men in my family or life who were brave enough to open up to me about their plight: all the joys, action and anger. I felt as if the world needed to know about all of these brave men – and women.

Anita Woodley plays Mr. Freedom in “The Men in Me.”
Anita Woodley plays Mr. Freedom in “The Men in Me.”

M.O.I. JR: Are you working on some new work?

Anita Woodley: Yes, I have a new work called “Boomerang” to be released in December 2014. I’ll be sharing my dips and rise over the racism and sexism in a public corporation connected with my years living and working in America’s modern South.

But it will also include my real journey to the Cameroon Rainforest five years ago to become a princess and begin my escape from corporate America. The stories capture that intensity and how I used slave narratives and childhood stories as inspiration to become a full-time artist and healer in my community.

I also recorded many modern day work songs that just exuded from my being when I was battling racial and sexual harassment in the workplace. If you think about it, many of us in our late 30s and younger do not have solid, present day guidance from our elders on what to do when we face racism, sexism, inequality etc. Many memories are too painful to bear and are not readily discussed.

Now, it is my hope to help others to learn the art of loving themselves enough not to tolerate injustice, to honor themselves enough to fight and, if necessary, walk away with their souls intact before it’s too late! Bottom line, as my mama would say, “Ain’t no job worth your sanity or soul.” I believe that my show “Boomerang” will serve to start an eye-opening conversation many of us are ready to have.

M.O.I. JR: How do people stay up with you?

Anita Woodley: Visit my website, AnitaWoodley.com, or find me on

  • Instagram @anitawoodley
  • Facebook/MamaJuggsShow
  • Facebook /TheMenInMe
  • Twitter @fansofmamajuggs @themeninmeshow @anitatheproducer
  • Email anitawoodleyproductions@gmail.com
  • Phone 919-914-0104, Manager Demetrius Hunter
  • Snail fan mail: Anita Woodley Productions, LLC, P.O. Box 9821, Chapel Hill, NC 27517.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.