Mother Charisma talks to children with her eyes. Big brown eyes that pop out and make strangers laugh. Big eyes that are windows to the soul of a bold actress and playwright who teaches drama to small children, often without uttering a word.
"Move along, children, move along," Charisma said as she recently ushered two dozen young people into a meeting room at the Cedar Heights Community Center, where they participated in the making of a video for Black Entertainment Television.
It didn't matter that the students' roles consisted of clapping and cheering rapper Kevin Robertson, 31. This was going to be air time on national television, and Charisma wanted the children to have their acts together.
"We are going to learn how to be a studio audience," Charisma said. "Cedar Heights, are you ready?"
"Yeah!" the children yelled. "Stop, I can't hear you. Can we do this one more time?" Charisma barked.
After about a half-dozen tries, the children were cheering and applauding right on cue. Robertson sprinted into the room, the music started, and he launched into the taping of a rap video designed to help children focus on positive things in life.
Teaching children how to act in the filming of a television program is just a small part of Charisma's career as an actress, educator and playwright. But she imparts big lessons to the children, stressing that when they are on the stage, in film or at home, they are playing a role on the bigger stage of life. Therefore, they always should do their best.
For the last two months, Charisma has woven the Bible, humor and the crafts of drama into presentations at the Cedar Heights Community Center in Seat Pleasant during three two-week summer-camp sessions that concluded with the "Rehearsal for Life" recital.
"My series really is a rehearsal for life," said Charisma Wooten, who is well-known in Washington theatrical circles as Mother Charisma. "I want to please God through acting, and I am trying to teach these children that one can praise the Lord through talent."
In 1996, Charisma wrote, directed and acted in a play called "A Night With Jackie 'Moms' Mabley," for which she was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award. In 1997 and 1998, she was nominated as Best Emerging New Artist in the District of Columbia by the Mayor's Arts Awards.
Despite Charisma's success in theater, she devotes most of her time to working with children. She approaches them with a mix of humor and old-fashioned discipline.
Her lessons sink in quickly. Anthony Saxon, 9, of Seat Pleasant, said he learned shortly after the summer camp began that those who are tardy have no future in Hollywood. "I learned that acting is 98 percent business and 2 percent talent," he said. "Being a couple of minutes late can get you fired."
Genesis Griffin, 11, said that the lessons she learned from Charisma, "you can use later in life."
"I am concerned about the fate of our children," said Charisma, who told the children that each of them could be successful through hard work. "Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity."
This summer was the first year that the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission offered an acting camp to an inner-Beltway community such as Seat Pleasant. In previous years, Charisma has conducted drama camps in the District.
Cedar Heights Community Center Director Miriam Ross said she was glad that children from some of the communities inside the Beltway got a chance to take drama lessons as well as swim and participate in other camp activities. The camp ran from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"The goal of the program was to get the young people acclimated to theater and let them know what it was all about," Ross said. "Many of these children have talent that never gets used until somebody snatches it out of them."
And that somebody this summer came along in the person of the aptly named Charisma.
Although she is an open book as a performance artist, Charisma is secretive about herself. She refuses to disclose her age, saying only, "I was born some time in the 20th century." She guards all details about her personal life, including an abusive marriage during the 1970s.
"I just don't want to go there," said Charisma, who adds that she had a normal childhood. "I live in a house, I have two parents who are still married, I did well in school."
She began her acting career in Casablanca, Morocco, where her father, an Air Force master sergeant, moved his family when Charisma was 3. Charisma attended elementary school there and began acting in school plays and musicals.
In the seventh grade, Charisma wrote her first play for students in her class, titled "The Night of the Baby Sitter."
Charisma moved to the Washington area in 1976 after her marriage ended. She worked as an actress and moved from one stage to the next, traveling across the country in a number of musical groups.
She graduated from the University of Maryland in 1989 and then studied at the Shakespeare Theatre in the District. But most of Charisma's training came from acting and auditioning in plays.
"I have been through many trials and tribulations, but you never get too low for God to reach down and pick you up," she said. In the last two decades, she has developed a strong resume on area stages, but she says none of her highs and lows can replace "a personal relationship with God."
Charisma has performed as a featured soloist in productions of the "Messiah" and "The Seven Last Words of Christ" in Germany and France, and she has been a background vocalist with recording artists Phillip Bailey, Deniece Williams, Myrna Summers, Albertina Walker and Bernard Mauvritte.
As an actor, she has performed a range of works, from the Shakespeare classic "Macbeth" to musicals including "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "The Wiz." She also has written and directed a number of plays.
Charisma's drama classes have ended for the summer. For a list of fall class offerings, call the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission at 301-454-1411.
CAPTION: Nairobi Brannan, 12, practices a dramatic reading during a day camp for budding actors.
CAPTION: Mother Charisma leads Ebony Thomas, 15, left, Angela Poteat, 12, and their fellow day-campers in a dance at the Cedar Heights Community Center.
CAPTION: Darrell Clark, 8, left, Miguel Coleman, 7, and Michael Coleman, 8, flex their muscles while learning a dance at the camp taught by Mother Charisma.