Just as playwright Lauren Yee has been taking the Twin Cities by storm, so too has been Kate Hamill, writer of the Jungle’s Little Women production last season, Park Square Theatre’s current production of Pride and Prejudice (through December 22), and the Guthrie’s upcoming world premiere of Emma (April 11-May 31). Hamill’s plays are known for their ability to bring women-centered classics to modern times, infusing them with a much-needed dose of feminism and digging deeper into these characters’ struggles against a society that hems them in.
With such weighty changes, it’s easy to worry that Hamill’s production of Pride and Prejudice will be too didactic, but according to China Brickey, who plays Elizabeth Bennet, the play is far too full of shenanigans to even hedge that way. Here’s her take on the play, the crazy caricatures, and why it’s worth bringing our favorite heroines to life in new ways.
Obviously Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice is different than the original, but to get context, how familiar were you with the original story?
I grew up loving the movie with Keira Knightley; I was actually just joking with the cast that I could probably hum most of the soundtrack because I absolutely loved the score. It was actually a little bit hard for me to realize that it was a story I wasn’t going to be in when I grew up and became an actor and realized what it meant to be a person in color in theater. But I absolutely loved it, and I read the book, and I listened to the audio book and all that. Working on Kate Hamill’s version, it’s really interesting because when I read it, it really did feel like a place that I could see myself in, that I felt allowed in, because it kind of is the blown up version of Jane Austen.
I don’t know if you know the story, but Kate Hamill wrote this while she was deciding whether or not to marry her own husband, or boyfriend, so she and her boyfriend played Lizzy and Darcy, and she wrote it trying to figure it out.
Marriage is an antiquated tradition; it doesn’t really do anything other than help monetarily and legally, and we also know that it’s very rare that you’re going to stay together forever. What does that mean? You can feel that. The way that [the characters] talk to each other, the way that they call attention to the issues out loud and say the pressure that is put on women, the pressure that is to be perfect, the pressure that is put on couples to find the perfect person the first time.
I absolutely love it, and just as a person who’s had relationships and who’s been in love, who’s also trying to navigate life and love, it was kind of a relief to see one of my favorite characters say out loud, “Am I ever going to really know?” I think the whole idea is that … there are no rules. You’ve just got to go for something and figure it out.
With so many hilarious characters—Neal Beckman, for instance, swaps between Mary, Miss DeBourgh, and Mr. Bingley, who acts like a dog—where does Elizabeth fit into this range of zaniness?
It’s been very interesting to discover where she lands because … she lives around all these really loud characters, and I do end up playing straight man to most of the jokes until I’m laughing at them myself. She kind of is the anchor in reality, and I think Darcy is too, in a way. But I think it’s almost expressionist, if you think of everything happening through Lizzy’s eyes. This is just how I’ve done it for myself to justify that she is a little more rooted in reality. It seems like nothing makes sense. It seems like these people are really silly to just be able to see each other and fall in love, which is not true but she looks at how Bingley is just head over heels, gaga for Jane, and [Bingley as a dog] is how it’s manifested.
What would you say surprised you the most about this show?
I knew when I saw the cast list, “Oh my gosh, these people are hilarious and incredible.” I remember Sara Richardson [Jane, Lady Catherine] in Rule of Thumb, and she stole this one scene that was just incredible. And George Keller [Mrs. Bennet], I absolutely love. All of these people … Also Lisa Channer, the director. It’s very interesting and very rewarding to work with a female director.
I think the most surprising thing about this process is the way Lisa Channer ran the room. It was truly a collaborative process,and she pretty much said yes to all the dumb things we wanted to do. [laughs] This is my favorite way to do theater, to do an ensemble mentality. This is why I did theater in high school. The best part is putting on something all together and being so proud of what you created and laughing at all the little things we get to see every day that the audience coming in once might miss.
Earlier you talked about how, at one point, you couldn’t see yourself in Pride and Prejudice. Not to sound too sappy, but what does it mean to be a part of this play, then?
Honestly, it was very hard for me, and I didn’t want to show it a lot because in theater, in acting, you’re freelanced, so you have to tell everyone you can do the job even if you don’t know you can do the job. I realized very much how the lines I was saying as Lizzy, even the “ugly, awkward, sharp-tongued” line, were things I would feel about myself but not say out loud.
I’m multiple things. I’m a woman of color. I’m mixed race, half black, half white. There’s the old trope, “Oh, you’re not white enough for this, not black enough for this,” but I do, I feel that. Specifically in theater, I don’t look like the ingenue that everyone wants and that everyone is used to seeing. And I also have, honestly, I’ve gained some weight, and it was like, “Oh god, no one’s going to believe that someone’s in love with me.” People are going to be like, “Oh China, are you OK?” [when they hear this], but the play spoke to me in that way and helped me to deal with this stuff in myself. Even in the play, Lady Catherine calls Lizzy plump, and I was like, “Whoo, OK.”
I think this was a very good play for me to do right now because this play is all about a woman who doesn’t fit in her time, who doesn’t fit in a romance. It was difficult for me, and it was a lot of … If you’re playing a character who is really close to you, you have to decide what is mine, what is Lizzy’s, and what of mine do I lend to Lizzy when there are little me’s out there.
The whole thing is watching the story of Lizzy as the protagonist, and I look out and see two little girls with poofy hair, or little plump girls, or grown plump girls and grown poofy girls. The thing is, it’s a big responsibility, and I’m noticing the deeper I go into my career, everything I do as an actor, in this body, is a statement because I’m not someone you see normally in that role. It’s a big responsibility, and I definitely don’t take it lightly.
It’s been turbulent, and it’s been interesting how I didn’t realize that I wanted to apologize the same way Lizzy does for being in the center of the story.
This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.