"Some Plays Are Born Not So Great"
Amina Henry’s The Great Novel
, a 95-minute play in
the Flea’s Siggy space, directed by Sarah Norris, is the latest project from
the New Light Theater Project (Breeders
Henry, a product of Brooklyn College’s highly lauded MFA Playwriting program, has
written what is, in essence, a conventional play that she and her director have
gussied up with unnecessary, pseudo-absurdist distractions. These provide an
artistic gloss that does little to elevate its style or substance.
|MaryKathryn Kopp, Tabatha Gayle, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.|
Bertha (Nikki E. Walker) is a Jamaica-born, New York-raised
black woman who has been working for ten years as a maid for the Brennans, a privileged
Upper East Side white family. This includes the businessman father, Dick (Joshua
Bermudez); his teenage daughters, Charlotte (MaryKathryn Kopp) and Anne (Tabatha
Gayle); and his 23-year-old son, Saul (Michael Aguirre).
To represent their home, scene designer An-Lin Dauber has filled
in the spaces between the brick pillars, which form a permanent backdrop on the
Siggy’s wide, shallow stage, with sheer, white curtains. The set itself is
little more than posh-looking, antique furniture, a fireplace with a mantel, and a mirror-like,
lozenge-shaped wall decoration on which scene titles are projected. Near the
play’s end, tropical vegetation (lushly lit by Christina Tang) can be seen when the curtains are pulled aside.
|Tabatha Gayle, Joshua Bermudez, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.|
Dick, whose name probably is intended as a jokey slur on his
vacant character (it’s his disaffected son’s preferred salutation, rather than “Dad”),
is mourning the loss of his wife, who died a year earlier. He’s content to let
Bertha handle the parental care of his kids, as well as every trivial household
chore (like winding the clock, despite references to today’s world), while
ignoring her as a human being.
|Michael Aguirre, Joshua Bermudez. Photo: Hunter Canning.|
Seventeen-year-old Charlotte, an obnoxious, spoiled, drama
queen, turns everything into a melodrama about herself. Anne, the most normal
child, is a 13-year-old suffering from an insistent cold; she serves mainly as
a convenient target for her selfish sister’s rants. Like her sister, she traipses
through the play in a white peignoir (costumes by Mari Taylor), regardless of
the time of day.
|Oghenero Ghaje, MaryKathryn Kopp. Photo: Hunter Canning.|
Saul is a substance-abusing, self-hating, feckless loser. Apart
from Bertha, the only other family outsider is Potter (Oghenero Gbaje), Charlotte’s
British-accented boyfriend and schoolmate, whom she, romantic to the point of
delusion, considers her “lover.”
|Michael Aguirre, Tabathat Gayle, MaryKathryn Kopp. Photo: Hunter Canning.|
Bertha, burdened by her six-days-a-week job and the numerous
responsibilities it entails, wants more time to write what she believes will be
a great novel, although she hasn’t a clue
about what its subject. When we first meet her, she’s struggling not
only to jot down the first sentence, she doesn’t even know who her characters
will be, what they look like, or what their story will be. From what we’re shown,
Bertha seems to have neither the imagination, knowledge, nor skill to write
even a short story, much less a novel; on the other hand, she’s familiar with
the stereotypical tropes of classic British literature. She thus settles for writing
about the Brennans, noting, to our incredulity, how “interesting” they are.
|Madeline McCray, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.|
But then a ghost appears to tell her otherwise. This is her
late Granny (Madeline McCray), a colorfully overstated, Jamaican-accented woman
in Caribbean garb, who watches over and disapproves of Bertha’s choices, insisting
that she must write a novel about her own family in Jamaica. She herself keeps
providing anecdotal and atmospheric background. How lucky to have a dead
amanuensis available to do all one’s research, wouldn’t you say?
|Madeline McCray. Photo: Hunter Canning.|
There’s nothing especially ghostly about her (aside from no
one but Bertha being able to see her) and, for some reason, she often says her
lines directly to us as well as to her granddaughter. Granny is a clumsy device
for expressing Bertha’s internal thought processes, giving her someone other
than the Brennans with whom to examine her options and to offer advice, such as
that she make money by stealing an objet d’art favored by Dick’s late wife.
|Joshua Bermudez, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.|
Ultimately, Bertha has had enough. A climactic scene at the
end with Dick allows her to get everything off her chest so she can return to
her cultural roots (and accent) and write the novel Granny has been insisting
on all along.
|Nikki E. Walker, Madeline McCray. Photo: Hunter Canning.|
Perhaps to pump some blood into this rather anemic tale,
director Norris has the actors play everything in a heightened style that attempts
to comment on their characters but that results in what could most politely be
called overacting. Very little of what they do helps the audience make an
investment in the basic reality of the action, since it’s hard to care about
cartoons. Here and there something truthful emerges. I also guess you could say
that Kopp’s Charlotte accurately limns the nasal tones of what resemble those of a vapid Valley Girl, even
with the occasional vocal fry
. Charlotte, of course, is a New Yorker, but one
takes what one can get.
|Tabatha Gayle, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.|
Just as disturbing is the choice to have the multiethnic
cast wear partial whiteface makeup. Henry explains in the script that race and ethnicity
are social constructs, so she’s inspired to make an experiment “to draw attention
to the social construction of race by having all actors, except for Granny, in
white face.” This is intended to underline the irrelevance of race in the
casting and signify “the diverse racial and ethnic tapestry of the world.”
This may be a noble ideal but, in practice, it only works
against itself. The Great Novel
is a play in which a black woman works
for a white family but it actually never specifically introduces the issue of
race; with some slight revision, it could as easily be about a Polish maid. And
it certainly doesn’t need this annoyingly distracting “Day of Absence”
which draws attention to something outside the play’s scope.
When you see a multiethnic cast—apart from those playing
Bertha and Granny—with the upper half of their faces painted white (the white
actors included), you see actors who look like clowns, their already
exaggerated acting even further reduced to caricature, and the reality of what
they’re expressing seriously compromised.
Add it all up and, I’m afraid, The Great Novel
becomes anything but a great, much less a good, play.