Novella Nelson: Strength in Stature
Updated: Oct 3, 2022
A Brooklyn native, Novella Christine Nelson was born December 17, 1939, to parents James and Evelyn. Her father worked as a cab driver and pastor, while her mother worked as an executive assistant at Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion magazine. Novella attended Eastern District High School in Williamsburg, graduating in 1956. She would then venture to Brooklyn College, becoming the first in her family to attend and graduate college.
Novella, at the time a biochemistry major at Brooklyn College, found herself involved in a speech class, from which acting teacher Catherine Myers urged Novella to play the part of Berenice Sadie Brown in Carson McCullers’ play, The Member of the Wedding. Novella reveled in the excitement of acting and said, “When I came off the stage, someone had to hold me for a second because it was so extraordinary.” She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1958, not in biochemistry but earning a degree in theater. Her journey in acting brought her to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, graduating in 1961 to a rapidly changing theater scene.
In 1967, Novella understudied Pearl Bailey in the role of Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly!, the musical based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. Soon after, she would share the stage with fellow alumnus Cleavon Little (Class of 1967) in Purlie, a musical set in the Jim Crow era south. Novella played Ftatateeta, Cleopatra’s nurse, in Caesar and Cleopatra in 1977, and Addie in The Little Foxes in 1981, a production headlined by Elizabeth Taylor. In addition to these stage roles, Novella was also an accomplished singer, releasing an album, Novella Nelson, in 1970. Having made her cabaret debut in 1968 at The Village Vanguard, she spent time between acting gigs as a cabaret singer in numerous clubs throughout New York City. The New York Times called her “An unusually polished performer” with a wide range of material.
Beginning in 1954 as the Shakespeare Workshop - with the intention of showcasing younger, more diverse voices - Joseph Papp began a long-standing tradition of bringing new works to the public eye. In 1967, the organization became the now famous Public Theater, New York’s premiere venue for cutting-edge theater. (Hair became one of the earliest successes for The Public in 1967, and Hamilton began its journey there in 2015.) While Broadway has a tendency to stick to the classics (where The Phantom of the Opera has been running for over thirty years), Off-Broadway, not necessarily under the same financial scrutiny, can facilitate new works by actors and artists looking to experiment, revolutionize, and rethink what theater can be.
In 1970, Novella Nelson was hired by Mr. Papp as artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. (Papp also attended Eastern District High School in Williamsburg.) In a 2011 interview, Novella said of the Public, “It became a place [where] we did lots of black theater, fusing the African arts with European art forms and experimenting with plays, new plays, old plays, mixed casts, all of that.” During her time with the Public, Novella would produce a critically acclaimed production of Sister Son/Ji, and in 1975, she directed Edgar White’s La Femme Noire. The following year, Novella played “Woman in Brown” in Ntzoke Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. This would be her final work with the Public.
Having made a name for herself in the theater, Novella made her film debut in 1978 in An Unmarried Woman. Previously, Novella portrayed Harriet Tubman in a 1972 episode of You Are There, the CBS News historical series. While film and television work was consistent throughout her career - episodes of Law & Order, Army Wives, Damages, and The West Wing dot her resumé - Novella largely remained a theater actress. (In 1991, Novella assistant directed the premiere of Mule Bone, the Langston Hughes/Zora Neale Hurston comedy written in 1930.)
In 2002, Nelson appeared in Antwone Fisher, the biographical drama directed by Denzel Washington, and in the 2014 film, A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson. In 2010, she appeared in the 30 Rock episode, “The Moms.” In the episode, Novella (while playing herself) is hired by the studio to step in as Tracy Jordan's “mother.” The episode contains many playful jabs at her career. At one point, Tracy Jordan remarks, “I’d rather be up on that stage all alone than be with someone whose resumé has ‘black judge’ on it nine times.”
While Novella’s career wasn’t highly publicized, she brought a passion to her work for decades. Between experimenting with new material and reviving classics, Novella cemented herself as an artist first. Her work with Papp in the early years of the Public Theater helped to uplift underrepresented voices in all areas of entertainment. Through a deep love for humanity, her career will live on as one of empowerment and empathy, and today, she is being discovered by younger actors and artists throughout the industry for the impacts and advances she made.
Duke Daniel Pierce contributed to this piece.