‘Mama Juggs’ visits UNL to spread awareness of breast health

Anita Woodley performs 'Mama Juggs' at UNL to raise awareness of breast health.

Anita Woodley performs 'Mama Juggs' at UNL to raise awareness of breast health.

By Kim Buckley, NewsNetNebraska

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln received a visit from a special mama last Monday at 6 p.m. in the Nebraska Union Ballroom.

Mama Juggs‘ is a one-woman skit performed by actress and journalist Anita Woodley. The Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services at UNL and the UNL Women’s Center sponsored the event.

Woodley hopes to raise awareness of breast cancer and breast health issues with her performances. She said also wants everybody to check their breasts regularly.

“Get to know them, because if they change, you would be the first person to know,” she said. “You’ve got to become familiar with your body because you’re the first line of defense.”

Woodley started the performance making her way to the stage. She was in character as her grandma – Suga Babe Johnson. She randomly chose audience member Annie Phannick to escort her to the chair onstage.

“I felt that it made it seem like she was my grandma. I instantly had a bond with her,” said Phannick, a senior accounting major at UNL.

From there on, the show took off. Woodley made liberal use of one of George Carlin’s seven dirty words.

Throughout the show, Woodley switched characters. She alternated between her grandma, her mother, who died from cancer at age 47, and herself when she was 17 years old. The actress leaves a lot of room to improv, meaning no two shows are the same. She sings, dances and interacts with the audience.

Phannick said she loved the interactive element of the show.

“It brought us in her world,” she said. “It was like we were part of the family.”

Woodley said she channels both her grandma and her mother during performances.

“Imagine two people standing on the side of you and then those two people just go inside of your hands and all gather right in the center,” she said. “They become part of me.”

Woodley said she loves playing her grandma because it reminds her of her childhood. A lot of audience members show love for grandma, she said.

“When they do that, I’m like yes,” she said. “I’m giving the same love that she gave to me.”

Listen to Anita Woodley describe a fan encounter, complete with the voice she uses when she channels her grandma.

The most challenging part is channeling her mother, Woodley said. Her mother made the decision to not treat her breast cancer until it was too late.

“Sometimes I’ll get really emotional, like tonight, where I’m just bawling,” she said.

When that happens, Woodley tells herself that she needs to keep the show rolling.

“I have to relive her pain and what she went through,” she said, “And then the scene after with her dying, you know, you have to embody that and the grief of that.”

Even though it can get emotional at times, Woodley said it’s worth it because she’s educating people to take care of their bodies.

Woodley was in 7th grade when she heard her mother crying one day. She kept asking her mother what was wrong. Her mother didn’t want her to know that she had cancer. Woodley was persistent. Her mother finally told her that she had cancer.

“I knew when I was 13, but I didn’t know what that meant,” she said. “All I knew was she said to be quiet. Don’t talk about it. So I didn’t tell my grandmother or anybody, but if I knew what cancer was, I would have told somebody.”

Woodley said she had to deal with the guilt of keeping her mother’s secret. She would later film a PSA on not keeping cancer a secret. Her son knows to tell family members if Woodley is diagnosed with breast cancer.

Woodley saw the toll of cancer on her mother. She saw her body changing. She saw signs of the cancer, including dark spots on her hand. About five years after Woodley found out her mother had cancer, her mother passed out at a bus stop during her first year at Humble State College.

“I left the normal looking mama, and came back to this bald women with all of these tubes and stuff and finding out that cancer had spread throughout her body,” she said.

After the play, she showed a short documentary. The film showed her mother’s doctor visits along with some encouraging words. She finished the show by reminding the audience to regularly conduct a breast exam by doing “the hula-hoop and the wave on the breasts and chest.”

Listen to Anita Woodley give a tip on how to remember to check your breasts once a month.

Woodley accomplished her mission – at least for Phannick, who said she’s more aware of breast cancer and breast health thanks to the show.

Woodley’s message isn’t just for women. At the end of the show, she reminded the men in the audience that they could get breast cancer also.

She said that a lot of the time, the first time men get informed that they can get the disease is at her show.

“‘They’re like wait, men get breast cancer? They’re not women!’” Woodley said. “It’s like, dude, you have a chest.”

Woodley said there is a difference in the culture surrounding men and women in terms of breast cancer. That’s why it’s important for men to be aware they can get breast cancer, too, she said.

When she wrote the play, Woodley practiced for seven months. She then performed in front of more than 60 people. She received a minute-and-a-half standing ovation.

Woodley then went on to perform the show across the country. She’s performed in a barn in Vermont, off-Broadway and in Africa. She would even perform in living rooms when she didn’t have enough money to rent a theater.

Listen to Anita Woodley describe her experience performing for a group of nuns in Chicago.

More than 80 audiences have seen and heard the story of Suga Babe, 17-year-old Anita and Woodley’s mama.

Woodley said her mother lives on through her performance. She would be happy that her story encourages people to take care of their bodies, she said.

“She gets to tell people these are the mistakes I made, now you can do it differently,” she said. “And when they meet her on the screen, then they realize, Anita not making it up. This is for real.”

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