Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Actress Writes Musical Based on Life Story

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Actress Writes Musical Based on Life Story

Article excerpt

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. …

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