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Easing On Down Life's Road With Her Own Songs

From being a child performer to a touring star of 'The Wiz,' Ren Woods' travels have led her to the autobiographical 'A Diva Like Me.'

June 09, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Many child stars derail long before they grow up, let alone segue into adult careers, but not Ren Woods. The diminutive dynamo began singing and acting almost 30 years ago and she's been going strong ever since.

It'll be 20 years on Saturday since Woods made her stage debut as Dorothy in the first national tour of "The Wiz" at the Ahmanson Theatre. And on Saturday she'll be back on a downtown stage in "A Diva Like Me," at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

An autobiographical show with music, "A Diva Like Me" will be performed Saturday and Sunday as part of Blacksmyths Juneteenth 1996, the annual festival of works by African Americans that opens Thursday at the center and continues next week at UCLA.

A veteran stage, film and TV actress as well as a vocalist-songwriter, Woods will be making her debut as a writer. But there are those who've long thought she'd someday add this new title to her credits.

"I remember, as a very young child, my mother would say, 'You're going to be a writer,' " the outgoing Woods says in a recent conversation at the Mark Taper Forum, where the African American writers' workshop Blacksmyths is based. "I would say, 'Are you kidding? I'm going to be Tina Turner or Diana Ross.'

"I thought that writers were old white guys and they were like squares," she continues, punctuating each thought with a big grin or a hearty laugh. "I was looking for false eyelashes and the things that matter in life. I wanted glamour. I wanted sex appeal."

Try as Woods may to sound frivolous, though, she's clearly anything but. Born in Chicago, Woods was raised in Portland by her mom, a divorced nurse who managed to put her six children through private school. (Woods says her father was "out of the picture.") Not surprisingly, her mother Linda looms large in Woods' recollections and aspirations.

"My mother was politically conscious and a very unusual woman," says Woods, who is in her mid-30s and the divorced mother of a 13-year-old son, Duran. "In those days, you couldn't work and get any help from the state, but she and these three other women in the neighborhood got together and found a way to make it legal."

Her mother's actions made a deep impression. "I grew up politically conscious, but it wasn't shoved down my throat so I didn't turn away from it," Woods says. "My mother was smart that way."

Woods' mother also encouraged her children to express themselves, and Woods began doing that early on. When she was about 8, Woods and two neighborhood girls began singing together as the Three Little Souls.

"By about the third or fourth grade, we were a local sensation," Woods says. "We sang this dark, risque material, but we didn't even know what we were talking about."

Woods and her companions were taken on by a manager who began to promote their act. That led to a television offer. And before they knew it, the then-12-year-old Woods and her two girlfriends were on their way to Los Angeles.

The year was 1971 and things began to happen fast for the group, which was renamed Sunday's Child. "We were just taken on by Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and every huge star," Woods says. "We toured the world. We did the very last tour that Bob Hope did to Vietnam."

Woods also began to strike out on her own. She landed a commercial, a part in the film "Car Wash," and, in 1976, snared her first role on the legit stage--as Dorothy in "The Wiz." It was a crash course in stagecraft. "It was my first exposure to choreographers," Woods says. "We had just made up steps. We didn't know that shows were staged and people got paid to do it."

"The Wiz" also stands out as a high point in Woods' memory. "In performance, it's my favorite," she says. "I would go out onstage and then, next thing I knew, it would be curtain call. The piece had its own life and I would be swept along."

In the early 1980s, Woods married and--after being cast in John Sayles' film "Brother From Another Planet" in 1982--moved to New York. There, she felt for the first time that she was among her peers.

"That was the shift for me, where I actually started to meet directors I could relate to, because I wasn't a little kid anymore," she says. "When you start that young, directors are like old mean white guys and you don't really relate to them."

Divorced when Duran was 4 years old, Woods returned to L.A., where she appeared in TV series and recorded albums for both CBS and Elektra.

In 1990, Woods returned to the stage in "The Joni Mitchell Project" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. There she became friends with fellow cast member Lisa Harlow Stark, who is now her musical director on "A Diva Like Me."

It wasn't until four years later, however, that Woods first seriously considered doing a one-woman show. After some attempts at penning a script, Woods mentioned the project to her agent, Steven Veal of Media Artists, who suggested a co-writer.

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