If you don't already know who she is, it's possible that the name Ren Woods rings a bell. You try to place the face, the role, the venue...nothing. Then you hear her credits. And it clicks--and keeps clicking.
The Portland native, who was the first Dorothy to star in the national tour of The Wiz,, has been virtually everywhere--on the radio, television, movie screens, and stages.
Woods sang Aquarius in the film version of Hair, and was featured in films such as Nine to Five, Walker and Forrest Gump.
She played Fanta in the miniseries Roots, and went on to guest star on TV's "The Jeffersons," "Hill Street Blues," "Relativity" and "NYPD Blue."
She has appeared onstage in L.A.'s long running hit, The Joni Mitchell Project, Big River and in San Diego Rep's 1992 production of Zora Neal Hurston's Spunk. Her hit song, 'Take Me to Heaven,"from her second solo album Azzizz hit the charts, and now--the singer/ songwriter/ dancer/ actress is combining her talents and displaying her new one as a playwright, in the world premiere of her autobiographical musical A Diva Like Me: Ren Woods in Concert running at San Diego Rep Jan. 24-Feb. 23.
The show was workshopped to great acclaim last year in Mark Taper Forum's Blacksmyth Series in Los Angeles, a series that offers workshops and exposure for African-American theatre artists. Blacksmyth artistic director L. Kenneth Richardson is also the director of Woods' show.
Richardson was scheduled to direct Oyamo's I Am a Man at San Diego Rep, and when there were complications, Richardson thought of Ren's show. A producer at the Rep who remembered Ren from her work there was very interested, and he and Richardson summoned Woods to remount her musical in I Am a Man's place. This was in November of 1996. Ren recalls, "It was very scary"
"It was wild horses, really," Woods says of her decision to put together the show. When asked to explain, she says,"It was one of those things where it was a wild idea....[last year] wasn't really enough time to put up a musical . . .The great musicals are in development for years."
Although A Diva Like Me has now been in development now for a little over a year. Woods says, "What makes . . . a good musical is when the songs advance the story, and that's what these songs do." Woods also says A Diva Like Me cannot really be classified as just a musical, a one-woman show, or a concert. "We don't have a name for it yet. It's a concert-style performance where there is a stream of consciousness of the creative artists brain."
The story, co-authored by Julian Plunkett-Dillon, covers, but not chronologically, about 25 years of Ren's life-- all the successes, as well as the hardships. Woods was reluctant to reveal parts of the story, but did admit that some of the darker, more dramatic moments include a rape that takes place at the top of the second act, and her mother's diagnosis with cancer.
Featuring songs written by Woods and co-composer Lisa Harlow Stark,the music in A Diva Like Me is performed by Woods, three backup singers/dancers, and a four piece band. The music ranges in styles from what Woods refers to as "retro"--the rhythm and blues music from her childhood; then "real straight out contemporary;" and then, Woods says, "...some of it is like "legit" but with soul." She adds, "Of course, it doesn't sound "legit" when I sing it. "
The choreography in the show, by Javier Velasco, follows the music in style. Some of the choreography covers an era in Woods' childhood when she was part of a singing group called "The Three Little Souls," and includes steps from dances called the Boogie, the Jerk, the Pony. It also features choreography in the more contemporary style of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul.
Woods saw Jenifer Lewis' The Diva is Dismissed, a one-woman show by an African- American singer which toured from L.A. to New York's Public Theatre, but Woods says that her Diva is totally different. The idea became a reality one day as she was sharing with her agent at the time, her concept of this concert/musical show she wanted to create. He loved the idea so much that he immediately tried to set her up with an Irish writer/director, Julian Plunkett-Dillon. Woods resisted the initial pressure, but as Plunkett-Dillon kept calling her, she gave in, especially since he lived on the street where much of the stuff she wanted to write about happened. Woods says, "I went to his house and the coffee pot went on and we must have been together three hours. We blocked a few hours a week, and in about two months we had the text."
Woods hired friend/composer Lisa Harlow Stark, who starred with her in The Joni Mitchell Project, to work with her on the music. Through their friendship, Woods became familiar with Stark's compositions. "She's really gifted," Woods says, "I wanted someone I could tell the truth to. . .I just called her and said 'this is what you're doing. . .Help me write these songs, this is what will put you on the map as a composer.'
Woods has been working closely with Stark to rewrite a lot of the material for the San Diego premiere. She revealed, "There's real talk of moving to Broadway next. . . Although nothing has been confirmed. . . This is my dream." The multi-talented Woods also has big plans for her new career as a writer. She says she has three or four other ideas, but is currently struggling about how to divide her time between her work, her lover, and son. It drives her crazy. Then, she finds solace in a quote from her mother: "If it was easy, everybody would do it."
A Diva Like Me: Ren Woods in Concert begins previews Jan. 24, and opens Jan. 31 at the San Diego Repertory at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza . For tickets or more information, please refer to the San Diego Repertory Theatre regional listing on Playbill On-Line.
--By Blair Glaser