The difference between “Viola Davis” and “Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis” is the stellar actress’s topnotch turn in last year’s Fences adaptation, a celluloid version of the late August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning Broadway play. Wilson’s impact as the preeminent African-American playwright of all time stands tall 12 years after his death: Denzel Washington will executive produce nine more Wilson plays into movies for HBO. With all the reverence given to Wilson’s celebrated cycle of plays, one of them had yet to make its Broadway debut until this year: 1982’s Jitney.
Enter actress Carra Patterson. The sole female role in Broadway’s current run of Jitney (closing March 12) belongs to Rena Youngblood—portrayed by actress Carra Patterson, most famous as Tomika Woods-Wright (Eazy-E’s wife) in Straight Outta Compton. Her Rena Youngblood character is Jitney’s scene-stealer, the girlfriend of cabbie Darnell Wilson (Moonlight’s André Holland) who’s faced with trusting her formerly philandering bf or calling out his latest fall from grace and saving herself. Aside from her part in the August Wilson renaissance, Patterson has another iron in the fire: a plum role in the new E! network scripted series The Arrangement, debuting March 5. ESSENCE caught up with the busy young thespian at the Kava Café near Jitney’s Manhattan Theatre Club to talk Broadway, N.W.A and Black excellence in the arts.
Tell us about your connection with August Wilson and your experience with Jitney.
I’m honored to be a part of it, it’s been great. From day one, the text and the characters are so lived in. I’m new to it, it’s my first August Wilson play. So I’m just soaking it in, like, “How is he doing that?” I see the words on the page and I see what they’re doing, and I’m like, “How are they doing that day one?!” [laughter]
It’s gonna reinvigorate the cycle all over again, that’s the prayer. Because Jitney’s being done now, I think they’re gonna all come back to Broadway again. I’ve never seen Radio Golf or Gem of the Ocean, so I need to see those two. I saw Fences with Viola and Denzel when I was in grad school. They had standing room only tickets and I stood up twice to watch it to take notes. It was just beautifully done top to bottom. But it was different seeing it onscreen. That’s the beauty of film vs. theater. You get to see certain moments, nuances that you don’t get to see. The audience is a new element, so it feels different because you’re getting different energy every night.
And your experience on Straight Outta Compton? Were you a diehard N.W.A fan?
I knew the hits. I knew “F the Police,” I knew [Eazy-E’s] “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” I knew those, but my parents definitely knew it, because that was their era. So growing up, I remember hearing them. But I had to refresh for the audition, and it brought back a lot of memories.
I remember getting really excited for the audition, ’cause this was around the time of Ferguson and protests. I was just so happy it was being made and told. I remember I taped that audition in my living room, and I did not expect to get a phone call like, “Can you come out to L.A. and read?” I was just like… [screams]!
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Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were very much on set. And watching Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell and O’Shea Jackson Jr., they really put their heart and soul in. It’s unfortunate to think that white actors can pour their heart into movies—movies that make less money than Straight Outta Compton made—and get the praise and get celebrated in that way. But it all paved the way for this year. I’m glad that we did speak out [about lack of Oscar recognition], ’cause now we have Moonlight and Hidden Figures and all these great movies that are getting their due that they deserved.
Last year saw a lot of Black excellence in TV: Queen Sugar, Insecure, Atlanta, Luke Cage. Is it a trend that can be sustained?
I think they’re just now discovering that we can make money and that our stories can generate audiences and advertisers. I think we’re gonna see a lot more of it, because of the huge success and the dent that we’ve been making in the industry lately. I think it’s not gonna stop, because money talks, and we’ve been showing up and showing out! I’m excited to see all the stories that get greenlit because of Atlanta and ShondaLand and everything she has under that umbrella.
Take us into your own personal journey to the small screen, Broadway and Hollywood.
I was born in St. Petersburg, Florida. My parents were teenagers, so my mom took me and my little brother to college with her. She went to FAMU, so I pretty much grew up on FAMU’s campus. I started acting for real in high school. As a child, I’d always loved movies and TV, like everybody does. But one high school drama teacher took me under her wing. She started entering me into monologue competitions. Once I started winning those, my mom was like, “OK, maybe there’s something to this. You can major in it when you go to college.”
My dad was in the music industry, he worked with So So Def. When I was born, he was a Michael Jackson impersonator, that’s how I came to be. [laughter] So he was from jump like, “I support it totally. Go to L.A. What do you need? Chase the dream.” But my mom was like, “You have no excuse to not pursue your education. You don’t have any children. I raised you right. You need to school, school, school.”
I started considering grad school because of her. I was doing a play in Atlanta—Tarell McCraney’s play, one of the writers of Moonlight. And in that play was André Holland, who plays my love interest in Jitney. I asked André, “What do you think? You went to NYU.” He helped me get a last-minute audition at NYU and I ended up getting in.
What’s next for you?
This fall, we finished The Arrangement. The Arrangement is a romantic thriller that’s gonna be on the E! network. It’s about this mega-star who offers this young, up-and-coming actress $10 million, a contract of marriage to be his wife. I play her friend Shaun, a sexy corporate lawyer. I have all these amazing outfits; I would just be in my trailer taking selfies! [laughter] Like, “I don’t know if in the shot you can see the fullness of what I’m wearing…” My Instagram people know! [laughs]