PHOTO: FAITH ANDERSON
In colorful patriarch Leroy Brown, actor David Mann created one of Black entertainment’s most-loved characters of the last 30 years. The well-meaning but slightly wacky father has made people laugh through many of Tyler Perry’s “Madea” movies and the popular Meet the Browns and Tyler Perry’s Assisted Living television series.
But while outwardly successful and content, Mann was hiding a secret depression that eventually led him to contemplate suicide. “That’s when I realized I have got to share this with some- body; I cannot go through this alone,” he recalls now, taking the lid off a subject he believes too many men, in particular, try to avoid.
Mann’s openness is to be welcomed: According to therapist Nashira Kayode, writing for the National Association on Mental Illness, suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black or African American men ages 15-24.
Part of a long-standing reluctance among men to acknowledge emotional and mental health struggles is because of the way guys are expected to behave, Mann believes. “We’ve been trained from little boys, ‘Toughen up. Don’t cry. Don’t do this.’ When was the last time you saw the most prominent man in your life shed a tear?”
The result is an internal pressure that builds and builds. “And we wonder why at 40, 50, they’re dying of heart attacks,” Mann says. While he continued to put on a brave face, “inside, I was dying a slow death . . . I had to decide to take care of me and get help for me.”
Doing so started with being open with his family. Despite their solid and loving marriage, his wife of 35 years, singer Tamela Mann—they met singing gospel music with Kirk Franklin—had no idea of his struggles. She and his children “were so devastated because they didn’t see it,” he says. “I hid my pain so well.” His daughter told him that, as a comedian, “You were well equipped to hide it better than others.”
While some men try to drink or smoke away their blues, Mann “got up, and I worked my behind off. I submerged myself so deep in work, but I found myself just on a treadmill going nowhere.”
It was a dark season, he says. “I just drifted into this black hole . . . and I would not wish that on my worst enemy. I found myself in a place where it messed up my creativity… everything that I was doing. I just couldn’t get out.”
Three decades into a successful career, Mann admits he never got into the entertainment business to become rich and famous. It was “strictly and only to feed my family,” he says. But “God just blessed.”
He first got an inkling he had some talent while in school. As a third grader, he was named citizen of the school, but the following year, he started to mimic the whiny voice of one of his teachers. “She got so mad at me one day, but she couldn’t stop laughing, and the entire class couldn’t stop laughing,” he says. “It went downhill from there. When I realized I could make people laugh, I was like, ‘This is a gift.’ And ever since, I’ve been doing it and been loving it; it’s a privilege.”
Mann says that while some actors “age out” of their character, he has aged into Mr. Brown, no longer needing to whiten his hair to look older. “From grand-mamas to grandkids, people come and say, ‘I grew up watching you.’ One thing you pray for as an actor is longevity: I never could have imagined [still doing this] 30 years later.”
Mann earned a 2011 NAACP Image Award for his Mr. Brown character, which has seen him acting alongside Tamela. The pair have also continued to sing. He and Tamela (whose awards include a Grammy and Billboard Best Gospel Album of the Decade) released a duet album, Us Against the World: The Love Project, in 2018. The couple’s MannTV channel on YouTube—featuring music, comedy, cooking and informal family conversations with their grown kids—has almost half a mil- lion subscribers.
Mann credits his mom with helping him lay the foundation on which he has built a good life (see sidebar). By rights, he “should be a statistic,” he says—he and his brothers “strung out, sprung out, and hung out.” But he decided that he “wanted better.” Growing up, “I just didn’t feel important. So, it made me dare to dream . . . Some other people may dream of houses and cars . . . I want people to say, ‘That brother made it better.’”
In being vulnerable about his struggles, Mann wants to lift the stigma of mental health issues. It’s OK to admit you don’t have it all together and that you need help, he says. “Eventually, you’re going to have to stop lying to the very person you’ve been lying to all your life: yourself. That’s what I had to do . . . Part of the process was me opening up and being point-blank vulnerable and saying, ‘I need help.’”
He addresses the wide- spread reluctance to go for counseling. “Black folk . . . we’ve always been, ‘Don’t go up there and tell folks your business.’ [But] then a lot of stuff gets swept under the rug.” And though he is a firm believer, sometimes faith alone isn’t enough.
“I went down to the altar, and I must have said, ‘Thank you, Jesus’ about 10,000 times. When I got up, I was the same depressed . . . I was believing: I needed professional help. If I had a heart attack, y’all would take me to the doctor to have my heart treated . . . I was having some mental health issues: I needed somebody that could help me professionally in that area.”
Mann is encouraging others to open up through his new MannTV series, Mann to Man… Love, Your Mind, a partnership with the Ad Council and the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, in which he talks with friends and experts about mental health issues.
From his experience of dealing with depression, Mann preaches the value of self-care. Most guys don’t take time for themselves because they are fixers, busy caring for everyone else, he says. “But we’ve got to take some time and unplug.” In facing his darkness, he realized, “I need a place of refuge to go. I’ve got a place where I go out there and sometimes simply do nothing but watch TV.”
He also highlights the importance of communication, letting others in on how you are doing. “By speaking and sharing it with someone, it’s easier,” he says. “When I didn’t, the more I hid it, the darker it got for me.”
We’ve got to take some time and unplug.DAVID MANN
DAVID MANN: MY WAYMAKERS
My mom had a seventh-grade education and raised five boys— hustling, trying to make it, doing whatever she needed to do to make sure we were all right. I don’t think as a kid you fully appreciate that until you look back . . . My grandfather, Roy Mann, was one of the most inspirational guys in my life when there weren’t any positive role models.
From an interview with Louis Carr