Actress Mary Ann Jung breathes life into women’s history
It’s business as usual at the Pasadena Senior Center, until Mary Ann Jung walks in waving a knife.
“Julia Child presents the chicken sisters,” Jung trills in Child’s unmistakable accent. Whipping the coverlet off a table, she reveals raw chickens of several sizes.
Jung is not deranged; she’s a performer. Jung travels along the East Coast and further, impersonating famous women in her popular History Alive! shows at senior centers, schools, Smithsonian exhibitions and anywhere else an entertaining look at history is wanted.
“I’m the poor man’s Meryl Streep,” she says.
The Making of a Queen
As a veteran of the Renaissance Festival, Jung knows how to capture her audience.
“Comfort food is red meat and gin,” trills Julia. The audience is hers now, laughing at Julia’s jokes and volunteering to join the show.
Before Jung performed history, she planned to teach it. With a degree in British History from the University of Maryland, she joined the Maryland Renaissance Festival in 1980, developing her Queen Elizabeth for fun. Her goal was to combine history and entertainment into an hour-long show that paid tribute to Good Queen Bess.
In those days, as a daytime manager at the Marriott, Jung says she “learned how to do funny, accurate performances.” She didn’t imagine she could do it for a living.
Young Audiences of Maryland — an arts-in-learning program that provides a catalog of educational performers and programs to schools — rejected her pitch of an hour-long show on the life of Queen Elizabeth because it sounded like dry history, Jung recalled.
“I’m an actress, not a re-enactor or lecturer,” explained Jung, whose performance proved her an entertainer with a flare for historical accuracy.
As school bookings grew, Jung had to decide whether she was a personnel manager who liked to act or a full-time thespian.
“I took a huge leap of faith and a huge cut in pay like any other actor,” she says. “For many years I was a bartender on the side while I was developing the business. I wasn’t ever sure it would ever completely become full-time, but I loved it so much I wouldn’t give up.”
Women Who Shaped History
“Where’s my husband?” Jung says, searching her Pasadena audience. “Oh! Paulsky, there you are!” she says, grabbing Dr. John Charlton from the audience. Years of working crowds at the Renaissance Festival have made her an expert in picking people who’ll play along. Charlton enthusiastically kisses Jung’s cheek as she embraces him.
Besides Child and Queen Elizabeth, Jung plays an impressive array of women who shaped the history of Maryland, America and England: Amelia Earhart, Rosie the Riveter, Clara Barton, Rosalie Calvert, Capt. Jean Cabot, Margaret Brent and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Jung explains the progression: She developed the Margaret Brent show because teachers wanted Maryland history. For schools and conferences in Maryland and beyond, she chose Barton, a Maryland woman with international ties.
Her subjects were diverse in their careers, but they shared a commonality. “All of these women were fighting gender prejudice,” Jung says. “In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need a Women’s History or Black History Month. But we do, because there just isn’t enough time to fit everything in. So at least with this, we can open kids’ eyes.”
Jung’s favorite is Clara Barton, who she calls the unknown American hero. Barton was the first woman who worked for the federal government and a great contributor to the Red Cross.
“Clara is the most inspiring of all the heroines because of the adversity she fought,” says Jung She’s the character I feel most honored to portray.”
True from the Underwear Out
Back in the audience, Charlton-who-was-Paul raises his hand during Jung’s open Q and A.
“When did I die?” he asks.
“Oh Paulsky, you died in 1994,” replies Jung. The audience takes a moment to mourn.
Child, the latest of Jung’s nine women, is the only one she didn’t want to do.
“I was invited to create the Julia Child show by the Maryland Humanities Council,” says Jung, who is a frequent performer at the council’s Chautauqua series. “I turned them down, because I don’t cook and I don’t have any interest in modern history.”
As the Council persisted, Jung found she had more problems than her inability to bone a duck.
“Physically, I didn’t look like her, and the whole world knows what she looks and sounds like,” says Jung. “So I spent a lot of time watching video tapes and going to great lengths to get the exact look. But doing the accent still gives me a headache.”
Jung’s impersonation takes more than finding out major events. She researches politics, costumes, languages and intonation. She scours vintage stores and works with a costume designer to get the perfect look. She even hunts for period-appropriate underwear.
“When I started this, there wasn’t an Internet,” Jung says of her months-long journey researching each subject and fitting their lives into an hour show.
Jung likes to visit locations significant to the women she portrays. She’s visited Queen Elizabeth’s Hampton Court, Barton’s Glen Echo home and Child’s kitchen in the Smithsonian.
Whether she’s acting for six year olds or 90 year olds, her goal, Jung says, “is always to surprise with something they didn’t know. I want to be equally entertaining and educational. I want people to say, Isn’t that neat!”
See a Jung show at historyaliveshows.com.