Up-and-coming actress Peli Naomi Woods is ready to speak her voice

Peli Naomi Woods/Courtesy

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Bay Area Musicals, jauntily known as BAM!, is about to put on its final production for the 2018-19 season: the Tony-winning musical “Hairspray.” The production will showcase the bright-eyed sophomore studying at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Peli Naomi Woods. Acting in her first professional production, she is ready to voice her opinions to her new audience.

“At first, I was very nervous because I am still kind of new to all of this,” Woods said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “But luckily, this cast in particular are (a) very humble (and) welcoming kind of people. So I was able to break out of that shell a lot earlier.” 

Set in 1962 in Baltimore, the musical chronicles the story of Tracy Turnblad, a plus-size teenager who dreams of dancing on the well-known “Corny Collins Show.” Once she achieves this goal, she has several objectives, one being to racially integrate the TV network, which only allows performances featuring Black talent once a month. Woods will play a glamorous Black singer in the singing group the Dynamites as well as a Black kid rehearsing her performance for “The Corny Collins Show” in detention. 

“Being a Dynamite is a fantasy,” Woods said. “It’s like a caricature of confidence and glamour. Just the way the Dynamites move and sing to encourage, it’s something I very much feel like I (do) now.”

The confidence Woods finds compelling in her Dynamite role is reflective of the reasons why she pursued musical theater in the first place. Raised by a family involved with music, she said she has always been interested in performing as a musician. In contrast, her interest in theater began in high school. Taking a musical theater course kept her motivated and made her more self-assured, leading her to study the subject in university. 

“For the longest (time), I’ve always been a very timid person. But I noticed that … whenever I was performing, I was able to step out of that shell and finally be that confident, excited person that I’m normally not,” Woods said.

Although portraying characters has provided Woods with more confidence, she still encounters challenges with her profession. Performing powerful scenes in “Hairspray” that address the ongoing sensitive issue of racism has been difficult for Woods because of the parallel experiences she and her loved ones have endured. “Having to live through the racism, through the discrimination every day as that character in rehearsals is very hard to deal with because I have dealt with a lot of that stuff,” Woods said.

 “It’s just having to accept that this has happened to my family and that it continues to happen. … It’s not easy.”

Even with these hardships, Woods’ ability to speak up and use her voice to inspire change has grown substantially, giving her the resolve to keep going. She hopes to coax out that confidence in others with her performance.

Being angered by some of the topics in the show and comparing them with what happens today has definitely encouraged me to be a voice,” Woods said. “I want other people to be inspired to speak out when something wrong happens. … People nowadays have a bad habit of knowing something is going on but not doing anything about it, not speaking up. So I want to be a source of encouragement.”

Woods does not only want to speak up about racial injustice — she would also like to be an advocate for mental health, as she has dealt with issues within that realm as well. In high school, she aided children and adolescents with mental health issues by providing them with different creative resources, like music lessons, for combating their illnesses. Currently, she discusses mental health awareness with directors and other authoritative figures at her university. She has even contemplated being a therapist.

“I also want to take my theater education and apply it to psychology,” Woods said. “I have always wanted to be a psychiatrist or a therapist, especially for children and adolescents, (to) do something with music therapy, performance therapy. … That’s something I’m very passionate about.”

Teaching is another passion of Woods’, one that she has pursued in several ways. She teaches middle school-age children singing, dancing and acting at Triple Threat Academy, a camp in Alameda. She is also a gymnastics coach in Emeryville for Head Over Heels Athletic Arts. 

“I also teach basic piano lessons (and) voice lessons,” Woods said. “Anything where I’m able to use my skills, my experience to help other people — that’s something I’m really passionate about.”

With her various passions and great confidence, Woods will certainly create a strong impression on her audiences. Although she is young, she has already inspired change, and it seems that she will continue to do so. A distinctive aspect of confidence is that it tends to lend itself to those who see it in others; as Woods displays her self-assurance to her spectators, the effects will surely be present.

Contact Diana Piper at [email protected].