Britt Berke is a groundbreaking young theatrical director from Rockville Centre, whose latest work breathes new life into a never-before-seen play from award-winning novelist and playwright, Betty Smith.
The worldwide debut of “Becomes A Woman,” opened last month at the Mint Theater Company and will continue through March 18 at New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th Street.
Before breaking into the literary scene with the 1943 bestseller, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Smith had always dreamed of being a playwright. Despite having only completed two years of high school, she decided to take writing more seriously and in 1931 won the Avery Hopwood Award along with a $1,000 cash prize. But, her award-winning performance was never published or produced — that is, until now.
“Becomes A Woman,” tells the story of a 19-year-old girl living with her family in Brooklyn who goes to work at a local dime store. Timid and afraid of dating, she must find the strength from within to overcome some of the harsh realities of becoming a woman at that time.
Berke said that when she was first presented with the opportunity to premier the play, she was provided a script without an author’s name attached to gauge whether she appreciated the text itself.
“It was this cosmic beautiful thing,” Berke said. “I knew exactly who the playwright was.”
The play was originally named after its lead character, Francie Nolan, who just so happens to share the name of the protagonist in her future bestseller, but was later changed when she applied for a copyright.
“Our main goal of the play was to honor Betty Smith’s goals and visions,” Berke said, “and saturate it with as much detail and love as possible.”
The show is broken up into three different acts, each with its own unique style of performance. Berke explains that it starts off as a musical comedy, followed by a complex family drama, and a final act full of surprises and twists.
“It’s almost like directing three small plays that had to interact with each other,” Berke said. “I feel like I owe the entire journey of this play to my mother, Martha Krisel, who is an RVC classic.”
Berke said that her mother introduced her to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” at an early age and it really helped inspire her to direct the first-ever production of Smith’s first play.
“I’m glad we got to save this golden little play from that era,” she said.
For the premiere, on Feb. 27, Smith’s daughter, who is 100 years old, sat in the front row and watched the performance her mother wrote so many years before.
Berke said she first fell in love with directing while under the mentorship of Pamela Seiderman, the director of the IB Theatre program at South Side High School.
She graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University in 2018, receiving the Kenneth Janes Prize in Theatre for outstanding intellectual and artistic achievement.
From there, she worked as an assistant director for some Off-Off Broadway productions. She said Smith’s play, “Becomes A Woman,” felt like a good title to claim for her directorial debut.
Most recently, she has directed and developed projects with New York Theatre Workshop (Adelphi residency), Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The Public Theatre, and Object Collection / La Mama. She also directed Anne Carson’s “Antigonick” with Torn Out Theater, a company that utilizes selective nudity to highlight social interaction and promote body autonomy.
Performances of Smith’s “Becomes A Woman” are presented by the Mint Theater Company at City Theatre Stage II, now through March 18. For tickets and more information visit, NYCityCenter.org.