Black cast stars in play about old lady’s desire for trip back to simpler time

New Venture Theatre artistic director Greg Williams can’t help laughing as he watches rehearsals of “The Trip to Bountiful.”

“It’s hilarious,” he says. “The daughter-in-law is so selfish. She has no idea what’s coming out of her mouth half the time.”

The play centers around Carrie Watts, known as Mother Watts, an 85-year-old woman living with her son and daughter-in-law in a Houston apartment. She wants to visit her hometown of Bountiful, and, after many attempts to go on the trip against the wishes of her family, she manages to make the journey.

The play takes place in the 1940s, a setting Williams wanted to retain. The time period is important for the authenticity of the work, but it also makes for a more transportive audience experience, he says.

“I remember my father taking me to the town where he grew up and getting that sense of peace,” Williams says. “I wanted to give that to people, to get back to when everyone knew everyone and they weren’t scared to exist. You have this 85-year-old woman taking a bus trip by herself. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

The cast has been eager to learn about the time period, exploring the differences in language, social interactions and clothing.

“They have fallen in love with (the play),” Williams says.

The 1950s productions of the Horton Foote play as well as the 1985 film starred white actresses, but African-American actress Cicely Tyson played Watts in the 2013 Broadway revival and in this year’s Lifetime movie.

An African-American cast doesn’t change the play in any fundamental way, Williams says. The story is still about an old lady who wants to go back to a simpler time.

“It’s a celebration of all the beautiful things in life that we don’t pay enough attention to,” he said.

Making the play about an African-American family in the pre-civil rights era just adds another subtle dimension.

Watts is stuck in a world that she can’t escape, a situation that would be even more pronounced for an African-American woman in the 1940s, he says.

The story is also partly about social class, another layer heightened by changing the ethnicity of the characters.

“During that time, blacks didn’t have a lot of money,” Williams says.

Watts’ family is poor, depending on her pension check for most of their income. Of all the family members, the daughter-in-law resents her situation the most.

“She wants more than what God has given her,” Williams says. “She wants to go downtown and shop.”

Her anger makes her lash out at Watts, fueling the old woman’s desire for escape.

“You fall in love with (Watts) so much,” Williams says. “You reach this height with her and when she falls, you fall with her,” Williams says.

CAST: Antoine Pierce, Ludie Watts; Hope Landor, Jessie Mae Watts; Majella King, Thelma; Myesha-Tiara McGarner, Mother Watts; Brandon Lewis, Roy/Old Man; Roger Ferrier, Driver/Houston Ticket Man No. 1; Karl Jackson, Sheriff/Houston Ticket Man No. 2.

ARTISTIC STAFF: Ashley Self, director; Myesha-Tiara McGarner, assistant director; LaClaudium Ootsey, stage manager; Courtney Thompson, scenic designer; Dorrian Wilson, costume designer.