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Get back, Elizabeth Bennet. This Jane Austen hero wields a banjo and heartbreaking lyrics.

 Sam Wright is the co-creator, with director Nicholas Collett, of 'Prejudice and Pride', a folk musical that sets Jane Austen's classic on a Tennessee farm. Wright plays the gender-swapped lead in the production, a performance featuring lots of banjo-strumming and heartbreaking lyrics. The Kansas City-grown production arrived in New York City this month for an Off-Broadway run.
Brian Paulette
Sam Wright is the co-creator, with director Nicholas Collett, of 'Prejudice and Pride', a folk musical that sets Jane Austen's classic on a Tennessee farm. Wright plays the gender-swapped lead in the production, a performance featuring lots of banjo-strumming and heartbreaking lyrics. The Kansas City-grown production arrived in New York City this month for an Off-Broadway run.

Most people who take on the role of Elizabeth Bennet — Jane Austen’s most famous and liveliest heroine — don’t need to tune up their banjo before their performance.

Then again, most of them don’t wear scruffy jeans. And in the history of the classic "Pride and Prejudice" and its many retellings, most of them haven’t identified as a Midwestern farm guy.

But Sam Wright conjures all of those things.

On a recent Saturday afternoon at Kansas City’s Art Asylum, he was wrapping up a local run of his folk musical "Prejudice and Pride" in one of the production’s last Missouri performances before the cast and crew headed to New York City for an Off-Broadway version of the productionthat opened last week.

Sam Wright plays not so much Elizabeth Bennet as Bennett Longbourn, a male hero in this gender-swapped rendition of the classic. And he said in times of division and identity politics, the enemies-to-lovers romance trope is about coming together.

“The show encourages people at every step to put themselves in the shoes of the other and to think, 'How would I feel if that was happening to me?'" Wright said. "And it’s important to do that even with people we disagree with politically. Because that is the way that we finally come to consensus.”

Like Shakespeare, the stories of Jane Austen have been retold in a riot of different settings.

Some of the most popular are from novelists like Uzma Jalaluddin with her Ayesha at Last, Soniah Kamal with Unmarriageable, and Nikki Payne with Pride and Protest. These novels take "Pride and Prejudice" to diverse, contemporary settings, including a South Asian Muslim family, an extensive Pakistani family, and a community of Brooklyn housing activists.

But so far, not many of the retellings of this iconic writer from the long 18th century have been put on a Tennessee farm. And like many other contemporary retellings paving the way, “Prejudice and Pride” is not your basic comedy of regency manners: a gun will go off in a bar (called the Hoedown Jane), F-bombs will be dropped, and one of the “Bennet” siblings will run away and join the January 6th uprising in a plot twist that smashes head-on into U.S. political divisions.

 The folk musical 'Prejudice and Pride' is not your basic Regency retelling: A gun will go off in a bar and F-bombs will be dropped. Pictured here: Cast members of the Kansas City-grown production that arrived this week in New York City for an Off Broadway run.
Brian Paulette
The folk musical 'Prejudice and Pride' is not your basic Regency retelling: A gun will go off in a bar and F-bombs will be dropped. Pictured here: Cast members of the Kansas City-grown production that arrived this week in New York City for an Off Broadway run.

So a rural-urban divide plaguing U.S. society is also played out in this production, with some of Austen's traditional gender anxieties built in: Darcy is a rich girl from New York City, played by Bridget Casad, who sings about how she definitely does not need a man: “I’m no damsel in distress,” she croons, “won’t sit around, won’t wear a dress. And won’t be picked up like a piece of fruit.”  

“It’s about opening a dialogue,” said Nicholas Collett, director and co-creator of “Prejudice and Pride” with Sam Wright. “You know, we have things on both sides of the pond which are a bit broken. And can we kind of enjoy an evening in the theater together, and agree to disagree, and kind of reach out.”

Collett lives in England, and he and Wright began sharing songs over Zoom during the pandemic lockdown. Wright, who grew up in Kansas and Washington D.C., wrote the songs on his banjo and worked out the music with local Kansas City band Gullywasher, who provide live music at performances — yes, we're all invited to the Hoedown Jane.

The production originated in Kansas City before being staged at the hugely influential Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year.

Bravely, Collett makes a point of greeting and talking to audience members, plenty of them Jane Austen fans, after shows from Edinburgh to Missouri. He says he’s realized through talking to audience members and Janeites that it magnifies the text to twist it.

And this Missouri version of the story updates the story to portray a family on the margins, if not marginalized — the Longbourn family, like Jane Austen’s Bennet family, face displacement and the loss of an estate or, in this case, the family farm. Song lyrics also reference the cost of healthcare, the outsourcing of jobs overseas and “toxic masculinity.”

Before we know it, boundaries are being crossed, horizons expanded, and one rich suitor is rescuing a family and its estate.

And just like in Jane Austen, it’s all happening through love.

Darcy and Bennett — like Jane Austen’s protagonists — discuss the pain that comes with transcending boundaries and opening up to love, as Bennett sings, “The truth is I was comfortable with discontentment. The truth is I'm afraid of the healing you'll give."

With lyrics like that, from the production song "Born With a Broken Heart," Sam Wright takes the idea of consensus-making to a deep place.

“It was ultimately coming from a place that a lot of us experience, where we realize that feeling broken, feeling uncomfortable, is actually more comfortable than seeking happiness,” Wright said. “And I just thought about the ways that Elizabeth and Darcy kind of sabotage themselves throughout the narrative and thought, you know, maybe this is what’s happening with them, too.”

And maybe a classic work of literature that arose out of a time of revolution and unrest to examine issues of class, gender, land, love and how it all plays out in a small rural community can translate just fine onto a Tennessee farm with bluegrass jams in today’s divided America.

But if someone prefer their classic feminist texts to center the lives of women rather than Midwestern guys? There’s an author that does radically center the lives and struggles of women across two centuries. Her name is Jane Austen.

Perhaps putting Austen's most famous story on a contemporary farm with folk music and farm guys goes to show that this author was exploring not only what it means to be one gender, in one culture, place and time, but also what it means to be human.

“I believe that whenever we as humans tell stories, whatever time period or setting, it’s always a story about us right now,” Wright said. “That we’re really just trying to just explain our own situation, and work through it, and find solutions that we can move forward with.”

Copyright 2023 KBIA. To see more, visit KBIA.

JANET SAIDI is an assistant professor on the faculty of the Missouri School of Journalism and serves as the news director at KBIA 91.3 FM. Saidi has contributed to National Public Radio, the BBC and BBC World Service, and her writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor,the Los Angeles Times, and in a weekly media column for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Saidi helped produce the national PBS health care series âââââââ