Monday, April 20, 2009

I am Elizabeth Bennett

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if you are a Jane Austen fan (or Austen-ite), then of all the female characters in Pride & Prejudice you will most identify with Elizabeth Bennett. Or at least you will WANT to be Elizabeth Bennett. The other female options are just not real options for those of us who live and breathe the Austen aura. Mary? Too pedantic. Kitty? A follower. Lydia? A thoughtless, narcissistic flirt. Mrs. Bennett? A grown-up, hypochondriac Lydia. Caroline Bingley? Stuck up bitch. Jane Bennett? Too sweet/good/anemic.

That really leaves Elizabeth. She's willing to walk three miles with mud up to her ankles to tend to her sick sister at another person's house. The fault laid against her by her friends and family is that she is not quite as pretty as Jane and (more telling) that she is too apt to speak her mind. She reads (but doesn't consider reading more important than other livelier pursuits). She plays the piano (although not quite well). And she values people not for their rank, position, or wealth but the quality of their character (and their kindness).

Now, none of us can truly be Elizabeth. She's a fictional character of another era (Regency Britain of the late 18th C). Sure she's rendered into celluloid life by both Jennifer Ehle (6-hour BBC version) and Kiera Knightley (major motion picture release). And actually it's these cinematic renditions that I want to talk about. Because of course, on film, you want to render things realistically--which means you pick people who are white and British (or who can do a passable British accent--and I'm thinking of you Gwyneth Paltrow) and you put them in period costume and throw in some ducks and geese and pigs to show how "real" life was back then.

But in the theater? Well, theater is a different venue altogether.

Now for those of you wondering (where the heck is she GOING with this in a blog called "Mixed Race America") this is what I mean.

Yesterday I saw a theater production of Pride & Prejudice. And like with many Shakespeare plays, this one engaged in color-blind casting. Which means, they weren't trying to cast everyone "authentically" as British or white. No one even tried to do a British accent (well, actually, one actor did). But it also means that there were four roles who went to visible people of color: Kitty was played by an Afro-Latina actress (I say Afro-Latina because her appearance suggested African American but her name suggested Latino influence). Mr. Binghley was played by a South Asian American actor and his sister, Caroline Binghley, was played by an African American actress. And most astounding enough, the lead--THE LEAD--was played by an Asian American (Filipina if I had to guess by both name and appearance) woman.

That's right. Elizabeth Bennett was Asian.

And while I can't vouch for the actual production (lets face it--it would have had to have been SPECTACULAR for any Austen-fan to think it was better than either of the films I mentioned above, let alone the novel itself), as I was watching Elizabeth deliver her lines (she wasn't bad, by the way--the actress that is), I imagined the following imaginary scenario:

You are an Asian American girl in High School and your English teacher assigns Pride & Prejudice. You and your girlfriends love the book and talk about wanting to be like Elizabeth. Your class takes a field trip to see a theater production. Lo and behold, you see the actress and realize that you actually CAN be Elizabeth Bennett!

This is why I went to see this play. Not because I love Pride & Prejudice, but because when I saw the stills from the production, I saw that Elizabeth was played by an Asian American woman. And I wanted to have that experience--of seeing someone who could be me, portray one of the most beloved of Austen's heroines on stage. I wanted, briefly, the idea that I, or someone like me, could be the protagonist--the hero--the one who everyone cheers for (and claps for) at the end of the performance. For the first time in my experience, Asian Americans, along with African American and Latinos, were put into the British literary canon in a really tangible, visible way.

And I though: well it's about time!


Paul said...

You actually wrote a post on P&P without mentioning PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES!!!!

Jennifer said...

Hey Paul,
I DID hear a piece on NPR about this--and I have been meaning to check it out. Apparently the author was able to keep about 90% of the language of the original novel. Pretty neat. They also said, in the piece, that they thought this might start a whole new wave of "new" classics--like Great Expectations meets Werewolves or Jude the Obscure and Vampires. We'll just have to see!