view counter

Captain Grace O’Malley, Pirate Queen of Ireland

Woman of many faces hops from one century to the next, bringing to life amazing women of history
 

Was that Amelia Earhart you bumped into at the grocery store?  Julia Child, Clara Barton, or even Sally Ride at the mall?
    You are not seeing things. I change into and out of corsets, wigs, and hoop skirts several times each day to hop from one century to the next for my fascinating job. I’m Mary Ann Jung, an award-winning actress and Smithsonian scholar who’s lucky to make a wonderful living performing shows about amazing women in history.
    I might start my day in the 1500s as Queen Elizabeth I of England, speaking with a Shakespearean accent and wearing a 50-pound gown, wig, ruff and corset. Then I switch to Civil War garb to play my favorite heroine, Clara Barton, in a moving and inspiring show about how she saved countless lives while enduring terrible persecution. Heavy as 19th century wear is, it’s lighter than my Renaissance gown.
    Then with luck I can really get comfortable in more modern clothing, trousers and a shirt, to play Amelia Earhart, Julia Child or Sally Ride. Although I wouldn’t describe my Sally Ride’s big 1980s’ wig as comfortable, it is authentic to how she looked in 1983 when she became America’s first female astronaut. I give up comfort to look like my characters from stem to stern.
    Wearing hot and heavy period costumes for hours makes me appreciate women like Amelia Earhart, who fought for our right to wear pants.
    Folks love to ask Aren’t you hot in that outfit?
    Of course I am. But I don’t usually think about how gross and sweaty I am (that is authentic!) until I’m backstage. I’m having way too much fun entertaining and educating audiences. When I get home, nothing feels better than getting into air-conditioning and putting on an even greater invention than regular pants: sweat pants.
    I got my start as an actress at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, where we work nine hours a day outside in the heat, rain or cold. If you can survive that for 40 years and still love it, a few hours of shows don’t seem so bad.


    Besides all these women, I have shows about characters as diverse as Margaret Brent of Maryland (1600s), Rosalie Calvert (War of 1812), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (18th century suffragist), Juliette Gordon Low (Girl Scout founder) and Rosie the Riveter (World War II). If you don’t know who they are, look them up. Or better yet, come to one of my interactive performances. You’ll learn more than most books can tell you, especially the unusual personal stories.

Creating My One-of-a-Kind Career

    With my degree in British history from the University of Maryland, I hoped to become a teacher. But my friend Mike Moreland asked me to help with his falconry show at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Crazy about Shakespeare, I jumped in, working on my English accent and Shakespearean language. As we created a show that was both instructive and fun, I got hooked on entertaining in proper costume, accent and attitude for the period. It was great training and inspired me to create my own interactive one-woman shows.
    For each woman I choose, I spend up to a year in research. I have to learn not only about the character but also her clothes, hair, make-up, accents and the larger context of her era and how she fit in. Or rather did not fit in. All of my women were rebels who in one way or another broke from society’s limited views of what women in their times should do and be.
    There was no internet when I started this career, so I went to my local library to get biographies and history books. Then I visited sites like the Clara Barton National Historic site in Glen Echo. For Margaret Brent, who was the first woman in America to demand the vote, first woman landowner and first female lawyer, I visited Historic St. Mary’s City. Interpreters, docents and park rangers at historic sites have a wealth of knowledge they love to share.
    Next I have to come up with an accurate costume for my character. To cover my blond hair, I wear wigs, red for Queen Elizabeth or a 1950s’ sausage roll for Julia Child. The clothing of modern women like Julia Child or Rosie the Riveter are easy to put together from thrift-store finds. For the more elaborate period gowns, I rely on Renaissance Festival costumer and friend Cindy Andersen, who can create magic out of cloth and trim. Her costumes are so accurate that I can stand next to a portrait of Katherine Parr or Anne Boleyn and pass as her twin.
    Hats and props help bring the era to life, so I give them to audience members who become part of the show. In my Clara Barton show, three people play Civil War soldiers and another a nurse, who gets into a big hoop skirt. The hoop skirt always gets a big gasp and laugh. Tricks like that make my shows fun, surprising and interactive, not boring dry history.
    I also share odd, surprising and unusual facts in every show that even folks who know the period won’t know. For instance, did you know Amelia Earhart designed clothes? Or that Sally Ride could have been a tennis pro instead of an astronaut? Or in a wonderful connection between the two, that Sally Ride took one of Amelia Earhart’s silk scarves up on the space shuttle?
    I am equal parts entertainer and historian. I love to make people laugh or gasp in surprise. Thanks to my Renaissance Festival training, I use a lot of improv and humor. Never knowing what the audience is going to do or say keeps it fresh for me. No two shows are ever the same, especially since I perform for school kids, scholars, museums, festivals, seniors and everybody in between.
    It’s not just my audiences who have adventures. I’ve had a check written to me as Amelia Earhart. I’ve been pulled over for speeding dressed as Queen Elizabeth I (The officer was not amused). I was nervous for weeks before playing Catherine de Medici for a fundraiser for the ambassador of France. The ambassador liked my show so much he invited me to stay for dinner, where I was seated between Leo Tolstoy Jr. and Mr. Pillsbury.

Pirate Queen of Ireland

    This summer, I’m presenting the audacious Captain Grace O’Malley, Pirate Queen of Ireland, for the Maryland Humanities Council’s Chautauqua. Chautauquas date back to the 19th century as summer cultural and recreational gatherings. Modern Chautauquas present a thematic series of free performances all around the state. This year’s theme is water, so at the various locations you can see programs about Jacques Cousteau and Matthew Henson the Arctic explorer as well as O’Malley.
    Grace, or Grania in Gaelic, was a formidable leader who commanded a fleet of ships in the 1500s. She not only led hundreds of fighting men to build up her trading business; she also faced down her rival Queen Elizabeth I to save the life of her son.
    Whether she was a pirate or a heroine depended on which end of the cannon you were looking at. Audiences can decide for themselves this summer.
    But beware: Grace’s descendants are still out there. I’ve had many appear at my shows. That’s another aspect of performing I love. I’m always learning more about my subjects. What an honor to portray such fantastic females. And there’s no better way to learn than by becoming part of history yourself.
    Keep up with Mary Ann Jung at www.HistoryAliveShows.com.


Meet the Pirate Queen at Chautauqua 2019: Making Waves, Sat., July 20, 2pm, Crofton Library: 410-222-7915.