Betty Smith burst onto the literary scene in 1943 with her debut novel, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. The New York Times called it “the best first novel I have seen in many a moon…here is a book worth getting excited about and an author worth cheering.”

It’s a rare play that can inspire applause from a line of dialogue and cheers as the lights go down on the final act, odder still for one getting its world première nearly a century after it was written. But that’s what’s happening at the Mint’s production of this remarkable 1931 drama by Betty Smith, the author of the novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” directed by Britt Berke.

Ken Marks, The New Yorker

Smith never graduated from high school, but she pursued an education at the University of Michigan, where she won the Avery Hopwood Award in 1931 for her play, BECOMES A WOMAN. The award came with a cash prize and Smith used her $1,000 to accept an invitation to study drama at Yale with the legendary George Pierce Baker. She pursued her theatrical ambitions with some success for another ten years, until she finally decided to write her novel about growing up in Brooklyn.

BECOMES A WOMAN, never published, or produced, is a play about a 19-year-old girl living with her family in Brooklyn who learns the hardest lesson a girl can face on her way to becoming a woman.

Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn endures through generations as one of the biggest bestsellers of the twentieth century. Yet, while Smith found her greatest fame as a novelist, she was most passionate about her work as the playwright of over 70 one-act and full-length dramas, commenting in 1937: “I write plays because I’d rather do that than anything else in the world.” Smith’s plays share with her novels a focus upon working-class women persevering through poverty to craft their own narratives of self-determination, often fueled by their engagement with reading and books.

Smith was born as Elizabeth Lillian Wehner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on December 15, 1896. She based the Nolans in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn upon her German American immigrant family. Despite her family’s economic hardship, which compelled her to drop out of school and take her first job at the age of fourteen, Smith immersed herself in books and theater. She took playwriting classes at the Jackson Street Settlement House, where she fell in love with an ambitious law student named George Smith.

The couple’s marriage brought Elizabeth Wehner Smith to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Here, George studied law and Betty won the status of a special student, auditing three courses a semester, including playwriting and journalism. Studying at the University of Michigan under Kenneth Thorpe Rowe (later the teacher of Arthur Miller), Smith became known as one of the program’s most promising student playwrights, with dramas including Wives-in-Law and The Day’s Work (a “strikingly original use of the one-act form,” according to The Michigan Daily), and Jonica Starrs, for which Smith also designed the sets. The Daily noted in 1930 that Smith, “through consistently mature work…has built up for herself a large following on the campus.” Although the work was not produced at the school, Smith’s Becomes a Woman was chosen in 1931 as a winning play of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Avery Hopwood Drama Award in playwriting.

The Hopwood Award led to an invitation from the legendary playwriting teacher George Pierce Baker to study with him at Yale University’s Department of Drama, founded in 1925. Expanding her skills in multiple aspects of theatrical production, Smith continued to write plays such as The Sawdust Heart. In 1935, she found work as an actor and play reader with the Federal Theater Project and in 1936, she sought an FTP position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was lured by the opportunity to study playwriting with Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Paul Green and the drama department’s founder Frederick Koch, also an advocate for community-centered folk drama. In Chapel Hill, her reading of Thomas Wolfe’s coming-of-age novel, Of Time and the River, inspired her to begin work on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The critically acclaimed 1943 publication of that novel transformed Smith’s life, as she became a national celebrity. Hollywood film and Broadway musical adaptations of Tree followed.  Although Smith continued to write plays, she focused her subsequent output upon biographically informed novels, including Tomorrow Will Be Better and Maggie-Now. In her final novel, 1963’s Joy in the Morning, inspired by Smith’s time at the University of Michigan, the protagonist longs to write for the stage. Mint Theater Company returns to Smith’s enduring identity as a playwright with the first-ever production of Becomes a Woman.

By Maya Cantu

Cast

Duane Boutté
Christopher Reed Brown
Jeb Brown
Gina Daniels
Antoinette LaVecchia
Jillian Louis
Jack Mastrianni
Jason O’Connell
Emma Pfitzer Price
Scott Redmond
Pearl Rhein
Madeline Seidman
Phillip Taratula
Peterson Townsend
Tim Webb

Creatives

Sets: Vicki R. Davis

Costumes: Emilee McVey-Lee

Lights: M.L. Geiger

Sound & Original Music: M. Florian Staab

Props: Chris Fields

Dialects & Dramaturgy: Amy Stoller

Intimacy & Fight Director: Cha Ramos

Casting: Stephanie Klapper, CSA

Production Stage Manager: Jeff Meyers
Stage Manager: Arthur Atkinson & Miriam Hyfler
Illustration: Stefano Imbert
Graphics: Hey Jude Design, Inc.
Press: David Gersten & Associates

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