Women of Freedom

On a Tuesday morning, Janice Curtis Greene cleared her schedule to vote in the special primary election for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District. “I get angry when people don’t vote,” Greene says. “People have fought and died for the right to vote.”

Greene (aka Janice the Griot) knows her history and believes in political activism. Now in her 70s, she has created a third career for herself portraying historical figures from colonial-era poet Phyllis Wheatley to Civil Rights leader Verda Welcome. Greene researches, writes and performs in Women of Freedom, an original one-woman show.

The former English teacher and retired federal employee comes by performing naturally. “I am a ham in a family of hams,” Greene says. The Baltimore native grew up singing, dancing and writing skits she and her sister would act out for family members.

Just 25 years ago, however, Greene began performing professionally. The Archdiocese of Baltimore asked her to be a storyteller at a Kwanzaa event. She researched West African storytelling traditions and put together a small show based on stories she found at her local library.

The feedback she received was overwhelmingly positive. She became a member of the Griots Circle of Maryland and the National Association of Black Storytellers. In the company of Master Storyteller Bunjo Butler and the legendary Queen Mother Mary Carter Smith, Greene perfected her craft, adding more songs to her shows and dressing in African attire. She now serves as president of the National Association of Black Storytellers.

“Accuracy is important when portraying real people,” Greene says of her first-person interpretations. Her costumes are authentic and made from period patterns. She not only researches the person but learns as much as she can about the period in which they lived.

Her family’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement put her in direct contact with some of the women she now portrays. “I remember one night, my brothers were at a protest. My father was certain he would need bail money. He had the deed to our house ready when Juanita Jackson Mitchell walked in and told him that wouldn’t be necessary.” Mitchell, one of two 20th-century women in Greene’s repertoire, was Maryland’s first black female attorney.

While all the women in Greene’s shows hold a special place in her heart, she has favorites. “Harriet Tubman is my all-time favorite person in history. People don’t realize just how brilliant she was.”

When Greene portrays Tubman in outdoor evening programs she asks the audience to turn off their flashlights. “I want them to experience the darkness Harriet Tubman worked in and how she navigated using the stars and the light of the moon.”

“Mother Mary Lange, the foundress of the Oblate Sisters, is my other favorite because my life was touched by her work.” Greene is a graduate of one of the many Catholic schools Lange founded in the 19th century. “When I portray her, I always ask the current Superior General for permission.”

See Greene in action at her show, Women of Freedom at Trinity Episcopal Church in Upper Marlboro Feb, 22, 1-3pm, sponsored by Darnall’s Chance House Museum, 301-952-8010.