I went to see a play a few weeks back, at a fancy-ass theater just a mile away from my apartment. For months I would jog or ride my bike past this theater, famous for its architecture, award-winning plays and gigantic images of playwrights plastered on the sides, never once stopping to step inside. I would shake my head and sigh, long-forgotten dreams of the stage echoing in my ears. But that life was behind me now—I was a cash-strapped adult who was very busy with the business of trying to live out Christian community in a low-income neighborhood.
So I would jog away from my apartment—the dumpsters swarming with flies, the neighbors who all looked different from me, the supposed ghetto of my new and beloved city—and I would run towards the theater, towards the river, towards the beautiful umbrellas lining the bars. It never took very long, because that is the way it is in America. The rich and poor, side by side, like two ends of a bridge. On one end you have people just trying to survive, and on the other side are the people who go to plays.
And then one day, compelled by the relentless curiosity in my brain, I stepped into the cool and metallic-gray corridor of a world-renowned theater. An adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was being produced in conjunction with the book’s 200th anniversary. This particular adaptation, by Simon Reade, happened to star Vincent Kartheiser (of Pete Campbell from Mad Men fame) as Mr. Darcy. I walked, shoulders slumped in response to the grandeur of my surroundings, to the box office. Quietly I inquired about discounts for poor people like myself, and was told there was such a program for people under 30, that I could get the rush price at any time. Would I like a seat for that evening’s show? There was only one left, and it was the best seat in the house.
Guilt creeping up my neck like an old friend, I looked to either side before declaring with an assertiveness that I neither felt nor believed in: “Sure. I’ll take it.”
Once you have lived in a diverse neighborhood for a while, it can be a shock to go into homogenous situations again. The reverse is true, of course, but perhaps a bit more expected. Now that I know people who are poor, who are refugees and immigrants and mentally ill and marginalized, when I know what goes on under the shadows of the skyscrapers downtown—well, it can be a shock to sit in a sea of crushed red velvet seats and perfectly coiffed gray hair, playbills clutched in mainly Caucasian hands. I settled down in my seat, pulled the scarf I bought at the Somali mall across my shoulders, hoping it classed up my pants and t-shirt just a bit. With a hint of bitterness and longing, I looked at the people around me, the kind of people who appreciate art and have the mental capacity to think about issues beyond what crisis will happen tomorrow. Do they know my neighborhood? I thought to myself, uneasy in my perceived isolation. Do they know what goes on in the apartments just a mile to the east? Have they ever experienced what I have, in my few short years on earth? Or do they prefer to cocoon themselves in the fantasy of this place, this theater, this pinnacle of escapism which is so very close to the real tragedies and hopes of life, being played out on the streets?
The lights dim, the curtains go up, and I am whisked away to an even more fantastical and seemingly far-fetched place, the world of Jane Austen. The costumes, Grecian pillars, oddly curled hairstyles and self-conscious prattle of the actors is soothing to my soul.
The play itself stuck tight to the book, rightfully fearful of angering the hordes of women known as “Austenites”—those poor souls looking for a spot of romance in a very modern world. The heroine, Lizzie Bennett, was portrayed adequately (albeit a bit strained) by Ashley Rose Montondo, an actress in her first major stage role. Vincent Kartheiser, resplendent in his trousers and mutton-chop sideburns, portrayed a perfect haughty-indifference-turned-sizzling-attraction towards Lizzie that was both believable and understated (Pete Campbell is crushing it as Mr. Darcy, I wrote in my playbill). Mr. Bennett, Lizzie’s father and normally one of my favorite characters, played up the “women be crazy” humor a bit too much in this adaptation. Similarly, the women of the play (besides Lizzie and her boringly demure sister Jane) were scripted to be rather insufferable creatures. Mrs. Bennett and her youngest daughters Kitty and Lydia were played with such hysteria, such trilling and screaming and giggling, as to be almost unbearable. Perhaps this was some precursor to the manic pixie dream girl tropes of our current time, Austen’s clever skewering of a culture that longs to make women one-dimensional, a collection of tropes and tics and hopes pinned on one successful matrimonial match.
As the play went on, as Lizzie rebuffs marriage proposals both from her creepy rector cousin and Mr. Darcy himself, my interest began to heighten. Watching Lizzie defend her actions to both her shrill mother and logical father (tropes again!), I was overwhelmed with a sense of what this type of behavior might really have meant for someone in Elizabeth Bennett’s situation. She was so brave, I thought, clutching my seat at the realization. Even though she must have been intimately aware of what poverty looked like, she wasn’t afraid of it. She would willingly embrace the consequences of not wanting to crush the truest parts of herself, of wanting to run away from artifice and respectability. Instead, she would run towards the terrifying lands of both personal freedom and economic entrapment. She was setting herself up for a life of downward mobility, of more work and less comforts and societal suspicion and condescension, and she was determined to relish the freedom it afforded her personally. She was prepared to be single, and poor.
But before I could fully idolize the neo-feminist Lizzie Bennett, escapades and ballroom dances and character-revealing episodes ensued which completely turned both Lizzie and the audience into rabid Darcy-lovers. By the end, when he is kneeling before her, asking her yet again to marry him, the entire auditorium is holding a collective breath. And of course she says yes, she always says yes, and then they are spinning around in an embrace together, kissing each other, just a few yards away from us, the people who paid to see this happen. A voice from the back of the theater, young and feminine, breaks the spell with a loud and exuberant “YAY!” and we all erupt in nervous laughter.
I giggle too, eyeing my seatmates to see if they noticed. As the actors bow (a thousand times, it seems like, my hands hurting from the incessant clapping), I feel just a tiny bit cheated. I wanted to be lost in the moment, to be wrapped up in the improbable romance, in the soothing world and words of Jane, but I somehow feel ashamed of it all.
But really, at that moment in the theater, when Lizzie and Darcy finally find each other, I wanted to shout my happiness to the roof. Instead, I left hurriedly and rode my bike home, berating myself with questions: Why did I go to the play? Why did I spend the money? Why were none of my neighbors there? And: Why did I love it so much?
It is at this very moment when I realize that I am not just a casual Jane Austen fan. As I critiqued and thrilled to the play, I noticed how intimately acquainted I was with the characters and story lines of Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s world, indeed, feels like a second home to me, because I have spent so many hours there—I have read every one of her published books, many times. I have watched every terrible miniseries, every full-length movie, every made-for-TV special that involves one of Jane Austen’s works, usually multiple times. But until this very moment, I have been unable to recognize this about myself: I am one of those girls. I am an Austenite, pretending not to be one. I keep quiet in fear of what the cool, austere literati would say. I keep quiet because these books are fantasies, utter escapement literature, only for those who aren’t fit to be fully present in the now. I keep quiet, because I don’t want to be labelled a hopeless romantic. There is a very real stigma against believing in true love, both human and divine, in our world today.
In the quiet of the night, in my own little bed, I began to uncrush some of the truest parts of myself. Emboldened by a fake girl in a costume on a stage, empowered by a nameless voice with the chutzpah to scream “yay,” I made a conscious decision to be brave. To choose to believe in a very good God and a very broken world. A God who sees the pain and inequality and suffering; a God who sees the beauty and the ecstasy the joy of a crisply turned phrase. A God who gives people the best seats in the house, even if they are determined not to enjoy them.