Photo: The Great Novel stars, from left, Madeline McCray and Nikki E. Walker. Photo courtesy of Hunter Canning / Provided by Karen Greco PR with permission.
Writer Amina Henry set out to craft a sweeping novel with intricate characterizations, but she hit a few roadblocks along the way. Her anxiety about the project actually led to another creative endeavor: a new play entitled The Great Novel, receiving its world premiere through June 29 at The Flea in New York City.
The Great Novel tells the story of Bertha, who has served as the Brennans’ housekeeper for most of her adult life. While she’s working hard for the family, she dreams about writing a great American novel, but she struggles to see past the heavyweights of the canon, like Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlotte Brönte and Ernest Hemingway.
With the help of her deceased grandmother, who appears in her dreams, Bertha is determined to craft a story free from literary convention and instead focused on her own life, her own heritage and her own personal narrative.
“I’m a playwright, but I think for a long time I’ve wanted to write a novel,” Henry said in a recent phone interview. “And I’ve always really struggled with figuring out ideas for novels and what my novel would be about, so in some ways the play began with that bit of anxiety because I was like, maybe I’ll take a break from writing plays and try to write a novel. I kept trying and failing, and so I just started writing a play to reflect my anxiety about writing a novel. That’s the initial impetus for the piece, and then I started thinking about all of the novels that I grew up with as a little girl. In some ways, they were really great, but on the other hand, they were kind of problematic because I’m a Caribbean woman. And I actually had never read a book by a Jamaican author until I got to college, so as I was working on the play, I got really thoughtful about my literary influences as a black woman growing up.”
Henry describes Bertha as a character who is simultaneously an artist and a working woman, someone who has never been given the proper space to pursue her life’s work and art.
“She’s a bit of a dreamer, but she’s also been forced to be a pragmatist throughout her life,” the playwright said. “And she struggles with finding her own voice in a world where she hasn’t been shown a pathway because she also has not read stories from her own particular background, but she’s kind of grasping around, trying to imitate novels that she’s read, kind of from the canon. But I think she’s at a point where she’s realizing that she has to not do that. She has to move on from that and figure out a way to tell her own authentic story.”
Henry said this central character was, in some ways, the toughest part of writing The Great Novel because Bertha is a protagonist who is very much in the margins. This can be tricky for Henry as a writer.
“As the play progresses, you get to know more about her, and that has increased with various drafts,” Henry said. “I mean, I haven’t had that many drafts, but from when I first wrote the play we got more information about who she actually is and what her life is outside of the job that she works, outside of being a maid for this family. In that sense, she’s become a little richer as a character, but I was really interested in her being a marginal character even though she’s the lead because really when you think about it, she would be a marginal character in a canonical text because she’s a servant essentially.”
Sarah Norris directs the production, which comes to The Flea courtesy of the New Light Theater Project. The cast features Michael Aguirre, Joshua Bermudez, Tabatha Gayle, Oghenero Gbaje, MaryKathryn Kopp, Madeline McCray and Nikki E. Walker.
“She’s great,” Henry said about Norris. “She’s really open and passionate about the project. I think she’s really ready to play when we’re in the room, but she has a vision.”
Whenever Henry first hears one of her plays performed by a cast, she has feelings of excitement and nervousness.
“On the one hand, you want to see what the thing is,” she said. “You want to hear and want to see what other people are making of it, so that’s always exciting to have other people’s energies in the room and see how they are interpreting the character. But, yes, it’s definitely nerve-wracking because you’re also hearing the things that maybe aren’t quite right or that need to be dealt with in some way, or there’s awkwardness. So, yes, there’s constantly a little bit of rewriting of it in my head every time I hear it.”
Henry has found much success as a playwright. Her other works include Hunter John and Jane: A Play With Songs, Ducklings, Bully and The Animals, among many others.
“I have been lucky because I have been involved in a lot of playwright development organizations,” Henry said. “I produced my own work sometimes, and that has helped. I produced three of my own plays, which is really hard, but I hit a point where I really wanted to keep growing. And I think it’s hard as a playwright if you’re not seeing what choices are being made based on the words you’ve written on the page. If you’re not seeing how a director deals with it and actors deal with it and designers and audience members, at a certain point it’s really hard to grow, so I just decided to push that process a little bit by producing my own work.”
That growth continues with The Great Novel.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Amina Henry’s The Great Novel plays through June 29 at The Flea in New York City. Click here for more information and tickets.