News Column

Preview: Actress, Renn Woods, writes musical based on life story

October 4, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 04--Renn Woods thought she could take a step back from the limelight when she came to Pittsburgh in 2010, accompanying her husband, who had work here. The singer-actress who made her first television appearance at age 10 and went on to memorable roles as Fanta in the epic TV series "Roots" and as the songstress who belted "Aquarius" in the movie adaptation of "Hair" was lying low, using her middle name.

"I was trying to be a housewife, which I'm really bad at," she said, laughing while seated in the Pittsburgh Playwrights' theater, which was still under construction for the opening of her musical "Sold: Renn Woods in Concert (A Play in Rhythm and Blues)."

Lying low does not suit Ms. Woods' big personality, not the woman who called her semiautobiographical show "A Diva Like Me."

Ms. Woods is perhaps best known for her part in "Roots" in a career that includes work as series regular Edie on the 1980s TV version of "Beauty and the Beast," in movies such as "Hair" and "The Jerk" and on stage as the star of the first national touring company of "The Wiz." She also performed as part of Bob Hope's USO Tours and opened for Bill Cosby.

"Sold" grew out of "A Diva Like Me," a musical she created in the 1990s.

After it debuted at the Juneteenth Festival in L.A., she performed it in San Diego's Lyceum Theater. Of the latter performance, The Los Angeles Times' Nancy Churnin wrote, "Woods was able to hold the audience in her hand for much of the show, connecting and bonding with those watching her until they were laughing, singing, grieving with her."

Performing the solo show that includes memories of abuse and the deaths of loved ones took a heavy toll and was among the reasons she developed "Sold" as an ensemble piece.

"When I did the one-woman-show version, it put me in the hospital because it was so hard, vocally and emotionally. It's 50 pages of text, the songs, conjuring those characters, manipulating the vocal cords to create those characters, it was too much. So I really wanted to develop it into a full-blown musical."

While in Pittsburgh, a chance meeting with an old friend from L.A. "outed" her to those who didn't know her as "Renn Woods, actress, singer, songwriter." The friend was Les Howard, who led her to the doorstep of Playwrights' artistic director, Mark Clayton Southers, and has a part in the show.

She brought the script to the Playwrights' leader.

"I put it in his hands, and he didn't read it for two years," she said, laughing again.

One day the phone rang, and it was Mr. Southers, and the timing wasn't good. Ms. Woods was traveling between L.A. and New York recording an album as a singer-songwriter. "And I knew I couldn't do it in February, because February is Black History Month and it's crazy for anyone who has been in 'Roots.' There are so many events you really do have to show up at."

Her record producer wasn't happy, but she was sold on doing her show here, and the musical opens on Saturday after a sold-out preview tonight. Mr. Southers co-directs with Monteze Freeland, who seems even younger than his 28 years, until he begins to talk about working on this project with Ms. Woods.

"People hear about people who have success in this business, but they don't necessarily know. This is a moment for people to get to know the person behind the artist, the gift," said Mr. Freeland, a local actor-director who was a fan of Ms. Woods' work on screen and stage.

"I knew Mark was the right person to do this, and then he showed me [Mr. Freeland] and I was like, all right, we're going to be OK," Ms. Woods said. "It's not the kind of material you turn over to just any director. Some of it is very tender. There's death, there's abuse. You should have seen my people at the [L.A.] Music Center when I was talking about it. They were saying, 'It's a musical and there's death and abuse?' I said, 'Yup, and it's uplifting, too.' "

"That's not what it's all about," Mr. Freeland added. "It's about pushing through that. It's about surviving. Not just for artists but especially artists, because there are so many hang-ups you can get caught up in."

Playwrights intimate theater on the third floor of 937 Liberty Ave. is being transformed into a cabaret-style space, with room for a five-piece band. Along with Mr. Howard, the cast includes some familiar faces at Playwrights, including Mr. Southers' son, Marcus, and Sandy Dowe as the mother of the 8-year-old Renn. The toughest casting was finding an actress to play Ms. Woods as a youngster, and for that, they turned to Aliya Sims, 17, who was in a Southers-directed production of "The Wiz" as Evillene.

Mr. Southers piled the cast into a car to visit her, and they brought her in for a read through. "And we were all like this," said Ms. Woods, floating her fingers in front of her face like tears. "I was amazed by what she understood."

Without giving too much away, the entertainer expects to reach an understanding with her audience about the dynamics of family and fame.

"One of my favorite people I've ever worked with is [the director] Robert Altman, and I've known him since I was a little girl, and I used to hang around their house in Malibu when I was a kid. And one of the things he told me was the great stories are personal, and the more personal the story, the more universal they are."

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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