Bahati, Wambui

Wambui Bahati

1950(?)—

Performer, motivational writer and speaker

Wambui Bahati was a rising Broadway star when mental illness eclipsed her career. After a decade as a poverty-stricken single mother struggling with severe depression, Bahati resurrected herself as an inspirational performer. Her one-woman shows used music and humor to present hard facts about mental illness, domestic violence, and other issues to audiences nationwide. Under the title "Miss Inspiration" Bahati utilized Web sites to bring her motivational message to a wider audience.

Became a Successful Actress

Bahati was born John-Ann Washington, named after her father. In her one-woman musical play Balancing Act, Bahati recalled her childhood in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the center of the struggle for black civil rights. When she announced that she and her sister were marching with Jesse Jackson, her mother responded: "Before you start marching all over town for freedom, you better march in that kitchen and free those dishes." As a child she was active in community theater. During high school she taught acting workshops and directed children's plays for the Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department. However by the age of eight she was already experiencing both the highs and lows of bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic-depression. She told Brenda Alesii of bp magazine: "I was always uncomfortable, crying at the drop of a hat, experiencing severe depression. Then I would have laughing attacks. I was a loner, but good at camouflaging it. I was often the life of the party—singing, dancing, and yet I'd go home and feel such sadness."

After graduating from high school in 1968 John-Ann Washington studied acting at New York University School of the Arts. One day she was walking the two blocks from her apartment to her dance class and found herself in Los Angeles with no recollection of how she got there. For four months she supported herself by babysitting before returning to New York, pretending as if nothing had happened.

At age 21 Washington made her professional theater debut in Godspell at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. She performed on Broadway in Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and in the national Broadway touring companies of Two Gentlemen of Verona, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Wiz, and Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope. She also appeared in regional and stock productions of The Magic Show, Godspell, Little Ham, Nunsense, Crowns, and a musical version of Gone With the Wind, as well as various children's theater productions. In 1970s show business, Washington's often erratic behavior was barely noticeable. She was under treatment for depression, but didn't recognize that her highs—the feelings of floating and invincibility—were part of her disease.

Spiraled Downward

Washington's touring days ended with The Wiz in San Francisco in 1984 when her second daughter was born prematurely. She and her husband at the time settled with their children in San Rafael, California, but Washington's mental state deteriorated. Following a divorce she moved back to New York with her children. Washington found work as a theater manager and as an assistant to Avery Brooks who was performing a one-man show about Paul Robeson. However she told Alesii, "I couldn't get myself together to go on auditions, I was dealing with two young children, everything was so difficult. We ended up on welfare." After several hospitalizations and a period of homelessness, Washington and her daughters moved back to Greensboro in 1989, deciding it was better to be poor there than in New York. Doctors told her that she would spend the rest of her life in and out of institutions for the mentally ill.

Washington tried to work while her mother cared for the girls. However as she told Mark Burger of the Winston-Salem Journal, "It got to the point where I couldn't function. Just taking a shower became an event. My children were literally taking care of me."

The girls went to live with their father in New Jersey. In 1994 Washington was hospitalized following a suicide attempt. Her first day there, she was doing the other patients' hair and makeup, giving dance lessons, and, according to Penelope Green of the New York Times, "counseling the counselors." It was then that she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Bahati told Green: "I hated my life, rotting in public housing, taking medications for my medications, and so I decide that I want to die. I've got the television on, 24/7, and in the background, getting on my very last nerve, is a Tony Robbins infomercial. The gall of him, I think, to take people's money and tell them he can fix their lives with some tapes—in four easy payments. I decide that before I go out, I'm going to prove this guy's a phony." She bought the tapes. "The main thing I heard from this guy is this: ‘Whatever they say you have, that's not who you are.’"

Reinvented Herself as Wambui Bahati

Gradually Washington's life began to change. She returned to school, became a vegetarian, took up meditation, and attended group-therapy sessions. In 1995 she changed her name to Wambui Bahati, which means "singer of songs" and "my fortune is good" in Swahili. She began writing. She told Burger: "I've always heard people say, ‘Write what you know.’ I figured I knew me and I knew this illness…once I started talking about it, I started feeling good about it. People came up to me, sharing their stories and thanking me."

At the suggestion of her first black female therapist, Bahati wrote Balancing Act. It premiered in 1998 at the Greensboro Cultural Center. With a $15,000 grant from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, Bahati took it on a 10-city tour for the North Carolina affiliate of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Bahati told Cathy Gant-Hill of the Piedmont News & Record: "This is the only illness I know, where you're blamed for having the illness which then perpetuates the illness. I think people would rather say my relative has cancer or diabetes, than to say, ‘Oh, my daughter has a mental illness.’ That's sort of the reason I wrote the play." The show's success led to performances at conventions, conferences, and other events nationwide. Bahati had a new career.

At a Glance …

Born John-Ann Washington in 1950(?), in Greensboro, NC; changed her name to Wambui Bahati, 1995; divorced; daughters: Marie and Julie Blondina. Education: New York University School of the Arts, BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre, Clark Center of Performing Arts. Religion: Ordained non-denominational minister.

Career:

Touring the United States, actress and singer, 1971-84; touring conference and college circuit, writer, producer, and performer of one-woman shows, 1998-; Miss Inspiration Productions, principal, 2001(?)-; "Beautiful Energies" Emotional Freedom Techniques practitioner, 2005(?)-.

Memberships:

Actors Equity Association; Dramatist Guild; Greensboro Playwrights Forum; International Natural Healers Association.

Awards:

North Carolina, President's Award; Toledo, Ohio, mayor's proclamation; Bennett College, Belle Ringer Image Award, 1998; Greensboro Commission on the Status of Women, Woman of Achievement Award, 1998; National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Lionel Aldridge Award, 1999.

Addresses:

Web—www.wambui-bahati.com.

Bahati created her second one-woman musical "I Am Domestic Violence" for a one-time performance at a YWCA in 1998. Word of the 35-minute program spread and over the following years she performed it many times. Bahati wrote the play "The Welfare Blues" for the Greensboro chapter of the National Organization for Women, whose members turned it into a traveling show. In 2002 she created "Who Cares?" for the Mental Health Partnership Steering Council An- nual Meeting, to dramatize the relationship between mental illness and homelessness.

Formed Miss Inspiration Productions

In 2001 Bahati and her daughters moved into a Habitat for Humanity condominium in New York City, donating many hours of "sweat equity" in exchange for their home.

Through her company, Miss Inspiration Productions, Bahati wrote and produced custom songs, presentations, and performances on topical issues. These included "Live and In Person-It's Racial Injustice," "Didn't You See My Show: My Journey Through Manic Depression—and Back," "Don't Let a Breakdown Keep You Down," and "Reminding Your of Your Magnificence." Her on-line "Self-Power Store" sold self-improvement books and products. She became a practitioner of Gary Craig's Emotional Freedom Techniques to help clients with pain relief and overcoming fear of public speaking. On her Web sites Bahati published articles on a variety of motivational and self-help topics. In 2006 she began publishing an e-zine entitled You Are Magnificent!

In 2007 Bahati released a CD, Crazy for Me, describing her experiences with bipolar disorder. She also began facilitating "Celebration and Joy" workshops and seminars. These would last from an hour to a day and take place live, on-line, and via the telephone. Bahati was in the process of creating a series of new self-help tools for those living with bipolar disorder and their families and friends. She planned to relocate to Sedona, Arizona.

Selected works

Nonfiction

"Be the Star That You Are," Inspiration-Motivation-Celebration, www.inspiration-motivation-celebration.com/Be-the-Star-That-You-Are.html (February 7, 2007).

"Domestic Violence is Alive and Well," Wambui Bahati, www.wambui-bahati.com/Domestic-Violence-Article.html (February 7, 2007).

"Fear Be Gone," Articles Factory, www.articlesfactory.com/articles/self-help/fear-be-gone.html (February 7, 2007).

"How to Have a Great Day Every Day—Create an Attitude of Gratitude," Inspiration-Motivation-Celebration, www.inspiration-motivation-celebration.com/How-to-Have-a-Great-Day-Every-Day.html (February 7, 2007).

"9 Steps Toward Nontoxic Health and Beauty," Inspiration-Motivation-Celebration, www.inspiration-motivation-celebration.com/nontoxic-health-and-beauty.html (February 7, 2007).

"Miss Inspiration's 10 Tips for Relieving Depression," Inspiration-Motivation-Celebration, www.inspiration-motivation-celebration.com/Inspiration-Depression.html (February 7, 2007).

"Television Fast," Inspiration-Motivation-Celebration, www.inspiration-motivation-celebration.com/Television-Fast.html (January 26, 2007)

One-Woman Shows

Balancing Act—The Musical, 1998-.

I Am the Domestic Violence, 1998-.

Who Cares?, 1998-.

Plays

Godspell, touring Broadway production, 1971-84.

Jesus Christ Superstar, touring Broadway production, 1971-84.

The Wiz, American Theater Productions, 1977-79, 1983-84.

Recordings

Crazy for Me—How I Got Over Bipolar Disorder and Other Life Stuff, 2007.

Sources

Periodicals

bp, Winter 2005.

More, May 2005, pp. 114-115.

News & Record (Piedmont, NC), October 3, 1998, p. B1.

New York Times, April 4, 2004, p. 6.

Winston-Salem Journal (NC), May 16, 1999, p. E1.

On-line

"About Wambui Bahati," Inspiration-Motivation-Celebration, www.inspiration-motivation-celebration.com/WambuiBahati.html (February 7, 2007).

Crazy for Me, www.crazy-for-me.info/index.html (January 26, 2007).

"Custom Presentations," Wambui Bahati, www.wambui-bahati.com/Custom-Presentations.html (February 7, 2007).

"Emotional Freedom Techniques," Inspiration-Motivation-Celebration, www.inspiration-motivation-celebration.com/Emotional-Freedom-Techniques.html (February 7, 2007).

"Wambui Bahati ‘Miss Inspiration,’" Wambui Bahati, www.wambui-bahati.com (January 26, 2007).

                                                                      —Margaret Alic

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