Inside an African country on the brink of revolution Language: Drama professor Denise Woods is helping "Les Blancs" actors give voice to the many difficult dialects in the play.

January 04, 1998|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Puh puh puh puh puh. Buh buh buh buh buh. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickles. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Peter Piper packed a pick of packled pappers

As Denise Woods listens, actor Chris Walsh warms up. It's harder than it sounds, and for the moment, accuracy isn't top priority. Relaxation is.

For the past few weeks, Woods, a professor in the drama division at the Juilliard School in New York, has been working with performers at Baltimore's Center Stage as they rehearse Lorraine Hansberry's play "Les Blancs."

Set in an imaginary African nation headed toward revolution, the production delves into issues of freedom and the relationships between blacks and whites, and blacks and blacks. Its characters speak with the inflections and cadences of Africans born and raised near Kenya, an African who has lived in England, a Nebraskan, and European nationals who have lived in Africa for varying lengths of time.

It is up to Woods, as speech instructor and dialect coach, to help the actors deliver their lines in accents that not only will convince their audiences, but also will soar to the very back of the theater.

"Breathe," Woods says to Walsh, gently straightening his shoulders. "First, breathe. Breathe from your ribs."

Voice as venue

To Woods, the voice is more than a vehicle by which one communicates. Conveying place, time and emotion, it is as much a part of the stage set as the painted backdrop. In theater, as in life, what one says and how one says it can be as off-putting as a "No Trespassing" sign, or as enveloping as a bear hug.

"The voice is more than a tool," she says. "It becomes a venue through which to express yourself, through which you shape what you mean. It goes beyond just having clear diction: Through the voice you unleash a whole lot."

Woods is a dynamic, 40-year-old actress-singer who manages to exude both big-city sophistication and comforting reassurance. She and an older sister were raised by their mother, an administrative assistant in the public schools, in the projects on New York's East Side. Her father, a social worker, died when Woods was 5.

She was 14 when she realized that people judged her by the way she spoke. It was 1972 -- the year in which she won the Miss Black Teen America title. And the year in which she began attending New York's School for Performing Arts, while also singing in New York's Children's Opera Chorus.

As a child, she says, "I tawked loik this all the toime. Like a New York City black girl." But during her high school and college years (in 1979 she earned a degree in theater from Juilliard), she found herself switching accents and vocabularies like costumes.

"I would go to the black Baptist church on Sunday, but on Saturday I'd be in Lincoln Center singing opera with the children's chorus. Then I'd go back to the projects where I lived. And then I'd be in a predominantly white school on Monday," she says. "I have always felt comfortable in a lot of worlds: All black. All white. It became easy for me to pick [the accents] up and then drop them."

Nonetheless, Woods felt as though a part of her had been mislaid. "It took awhile for me to feel comfortable with me," she says. "After I got out of Juilliard, I found a sense of the black woman who is an artist and a sense of me as a person. I found voice. It's tough, because a lot of the time you sacrifice a lot to go into these different worlds."

When Woods was hired by her alma mater in 1993, she was the first female African-American drama instructor in the school's history. At the time, she was a single (divorced) mom who lived in New York, but who was performing in a musical revue in Canada. "I'm an actress," Woods says. "But when Juilliard called, I went, 'Whoa. This is a godsend.' "

Her life is still fast-paced -- a blend of teaching and travel. Most weekdays are spent giving speech classes to drama students. Weekends often are filled with coaching jobs in out-of-town productions such as "Les Blancs." Her recent projects have included working with actor Ving Rhames, who portrayed Don King in an HBO movie. Next month, she hopes to begin a six-month artist-in-residence program at the Bessie Smith Cultural Arts Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Confident communication

Woods spends every Friday afternoon, however, in Harlem, teaching teen-agers how to speak more confidently. The program -- called "Express Yourself!" -- is run under the auspices of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, a charitable organization that offers tutorial services to junior high and high school students who have demonstrated initiative.

Created by Woods, "Express Yourself!" aims to teach these students how to communicate and feel comfortable in public situations. Its goal, says Woods, is not to change the students, but to help them develop their voices.

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