Review: "The Great Novel" Asks Whose Stories Are Worth Telling
The Great Novel
Written by Amina Henry
Directed by Sarah Norris
Presented by New Light Theater Project at The Flea Theater
20 Thomas St., Manhattan, NYC
June 7-29. 2019
|L-R: MaryKathryn Kopp, Tabatha Gayle, Nikki E. Walker. Photo credit: Hunter Canning|
Anyone who has set out to write just about anything will be familiar with the intimidating whiteness of the blank page or screen. When we meet Bertha (Nikki E. Walker), protagonist of Amina Henry’s play The Great Novel, she is attempting to define her own protagonist, for the as-yet-unwritten eponymous work of literature. Bertha, of Jamaican ancestry, concludes of her potential main character, “Of course, she’s white. White as a ghost.” Her conclusion elegantly establishes from the play’s opening her project’s dual hauntings by a dominantly white literary tradition on one hand and the wealthy white family for whom she has worked as a live-in maid for a decade on the other. At the intersection of these cross-cultural and cross-class currents, The Great Novel fashions a witty, delightful exploration of art and identity.
|L-R: Michael Aguirre, Joshua Bermudez. Photo credit: Hunter Canning|
There is another haunting here, however, one associated not with heaths, moors, cold, and winter but with mangos and tales of Anansi. Bertha’s deceased grandmother (Madeline McCray), whose request to be called by her middle name, Peaches, associates her with a different sort of nature than tubercular English novelists, appears to Bertha as a ghost throughout the play. Bertha had promised her granny—who had immigrated first to Queens (with a yard) and then Brooklyn (without one) and once taken her to Jamaica as a gift (a location skillfully evoked when called for by the lighting, sound, and scenic design)—that she would quit her job and write her novel. Granny/Peaches wants to hold Bertha to her promises, but she also wants Bertha to look for inspiration and subject matter not to the Brennans and the traditional English canon but to her own family and cultural heritage.
Madeline McCray. Photo credit: Hunter Canning
Kopp’s Charlotte is a hilarious blend of snark, melodrama, and would-be maturity, down to the detail of often keeping her toes pointed when seated, and Aguirre and Gbaje do similarly funny work with, respectively, Saul’s profane truth-telling (as he sees it) and Potter’s recurring bemusement in the face of Charlotte’s intensity. Bermudez’s performance as Dick suggests the disconnected hollowness beneath his confidently declarative assertiveness, while Gayle’s Anne is the most grounded Brennan. McCray imbues Granny with a sense of affection, experience, and fun such that the audience is on her side even when she recommends that Bertha steal something bigger; and Walker invests Bertha’s anchoring artistic and emotional journey with a warm, layered humanity. As Bertha reveals more of those layers to the children and the audience, it becomes clear that Henry’s play itself might be seen as an enactment of what Bertha ultimately hopes to accomplish. To say more would venture into spoiler territory, so suffice it to say: smart, lively, and entertaining, The Great Novel is a great time.
-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards