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
Although the play unfolds, with projected scene or chapter titles, in a modern-day New York City apartment, the set too extends the sense of haunting: it could easily be taken for a Victorian drawing room, with its chaise lounge, writing desk, and fireplace dominated by an enormous Fabergé-style egg from Tiffany’s, which belonged to the family’s late mother and thus represents both death and (re)birth. The remaining members of the family, the Brennans, comprise work-oriented patriarch Dick (Joshua Bermudez); his son, Saul (Michael Aguirre), the 23 year-old Joy Division-listening, substance-abusing avowed nihilist of the family; and his daughters Charlotte (MaryKathryn Kopp), 17 and a secretly unhappy romantic, and Anne (Tabatha Gayle), a liminal 13, on the threshold of adulthood but also, as Saul observes, still into stickers. The Brennan sisters evoke the Brontë sisters both in their appellations and in their dissipated older brother, and Bertha’s name itself invokes the famous madwoman in the attic of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the Jamaican first wife of Mr. Rochester and later re-imagined as protagonist of Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Charlotte (Brennan, not Brontë) is a fan of dramatic fictional romances from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to The Sound of Music, while Anne is ill, though not with TB, bane of the Brontë clan. Additionally, stretches of the Brennans’ dialogue would be right at home in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

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
This central conflict places Bertha and her emergent novel squarely into an extensive tradition of black literary debate traced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., among others, and reflected not only in The Great Novel’s narrative but also in its production design. It uses colorblind casting for all of the characters except Bertha and her grandmother, and puts all of those characters in whiteface, even if an actor is already white (in a great detail, Anne’s doll is included in this; and the sisters’ primary costumes are white nightdresses). The whiteface makeup recalls a masquerade mask around the eyes and nose, an appropriate metaphor for both the assumption of identity and the lenses through which people see art and self, as well as each through the other. Even Charlotte’s English boyfriend—or lover, in her borrowed parlance—Potter (Oghenero Gbaje) seemingly derives his desire to join the military from his preferred fictional texts. It just happens that these texts are video games rather than the Brontës, Shakespeare, Hansberry, Angelou, or any of the play’s other intertexts. Further, Potter is adopted, and happy in his blended lineage. Family here also stands with and for cultural and literary traditions, complicated by Bertha’s position of live-in maid, which involves a one-way intimacy and lack of life outside her job that is not really so different from the experience of servants in some nineteenth-century novels. Bertha feels like she owes the Brennans, while her granny argues that it is they who are indebted to her. There are tensions within the Brennan family as well, with, for example, Dick believing that providing for his children is the same as loving them, a proposition with which Saul disagrees. All three children, in fact, are given moments of perceptive insight beyond what one might expect from their behavior otherwise, including Charlotte’s discussion of her desire to avoid the mundanity that inheres in everything, including the day of her own mother’s funeral. 

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


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