On the second Saturday of 2020, at an afternoon tea named for a book published in 1868 and a movie released in 2019, dozens of Angelenos, dressed in their Civil War-era best, pondered a timeless question: Which March sister are you?
“I was thinking about this last night, and I was like, ‘I want to be Jo’ — everyone wants to be Jo,” said actor Hannah Miller. “But who am I, really?”
That day, the 34-year-old improv specialist from Glendale was actually a young woman named Samantha — Sam, for short — who lived in Concord, Mass. and dreamed of becoming a famous writer. That character description should sound familiar to fans of Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” which stars Saoirse Ronan as author Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical alter-ego, Josephine “Jo” March.
Saturday’s tea followed a screening of Gerwig’s awards darling at L.A.’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which united patrons of varying ages, professions, genders, and levels of familiarity with “Little Women” to discuss the most recent adaptation and its themes of nonconformity and empowerment.
The event staff had just two hours to transform the modern venue into a Victorian tea house, adorning the tables with Amy March-blue tablecloths and scrap-booked pages ripped from Alcott’s novel, strewn about Jo-style. Capitally dressed servers delivered dainty cakes and sandwiches fit for Meg, while a live band channeled Beth with its medley of 19th century hits, including “Swanee River,” “Clementine” and “Listen to the Mockingbird.”
Also on the menu, of course, was a trio of tea options, brewed to “mimic what they were drinking in the Civil War era,” according to caterer Justin Bastian. Miller and her fellow thespians served as the esteemed hosts of the hour, facilitating heightened conversation and checking on their guests with motherly care and devotion that would make Marmee March proud.
“We wanted to create characters that would get other people to open up,” Miller told the Los Angeles Times. “One thing that we wanted people to take away from this was talking to each other and getting to know each other, and thinking about their childhood and their memories, because so much of the movie is about the effect of family and childhood on who you are.”
Costumed in a light ruffled blouse and ankle-length skirt, Miller reflected on her own childhood and the frustrating experience she had while reading “Little Women” at a young age — one of her grievances being that Jo, true to contrarian form, infamously declines a marriage proposal from the boy next door (played in the new film version by Timothée Chalamet).
Now, after re-reading the classic at least five times and watching Gerwig’s modern feminist interpretation, she’s developed more empathy for the sisters and their life decisions. She’s even taken a late liking to Amy (Florence Pugh), whom she once resented for burning one of Jo’s books in a fit of immature rage.
“You start to see everyone’s perspective a little more,” Miller said. “There were so many things in the book that aren’t made clear because everyone at the time just knew it — about women’s choices — that if you read it from a modern perspective, you’re frustrated at certain actions, but … it’s interesting to read it as an adult when you have a better understanding of the time period and the actual tough position women were in.”
The oft-maligned Amy has long been controversial for her petulant beginnings and unapologetic ambition to marry rich. But she found a couple of admirers Saturday in friends and 23-year-old Koreatown residents Sasha Dmitrieva (who, like Amy, takes pride in their “tiny, perfect feet”) and Cid Snyder.
Rounding out Dmitrieva and Snyder’s brunch bunch was Noelle Johnston, a 27-year-old ad agency employee from Westwood who donned a borrowed “Alice in Wonderland”-esque ensemble, accessorized with a bow and “work loafers.” Like Snyder, the tea and screening were Johnston’s first encounters with Alcott’s work, and she fancied herself more of a Jo.
“I really related to Jo in terms of the way she engages with romance and how her romantic journey played out — and her professional journey,” she said. “I wanted to pursue writing when I was younger, and now it’s kind of a hobby, but the movie really inspired me to write more.”
Attendees had plenty of opportunity to put pen to paper at the luncheon, thanks to individual notebooks encouragingly stamped “create.” Throughout the afternoon, guests passed the stationery around their tables, co-writing stories sentence by sentence — like a game the Marches play in the book.
Event curator Ash Minnick, who had been prepping for the tea for months and stamped the booklets herself, also saw herself in Ronan’s character. Echoing Jo’s fraught relationship with her birth name, Minnick has “never felt like an Ashley” and hasn’t looked back since a name-tag discrepancy at work caused her to truncate her name when she was 17.
“I was a tomboy, and it was definitely one of those things where I grew up with the idea that how I dressed and how I acted and the sort of things I was into were masculine,” Minnick said. “It took me a long time to realize that there was nothing less feminine about me because I was a strong person. It’s just that we’ve been identifying femininity incorrectly. To me, a really interesting and important journey for someone to go on is to question gender norms and then realize that you’re also limiting yourself by trying to be the antithesis of them rather than just creating your own.”
Many agreed that, although the drinks and decorations were old-fashioned, the sociopolitical questions and revelations inspired by Alcott’s stories were more pertinent than ever, 150 years later.
“It’s nice to read a book that was written so long ago that still has themes of empowerment for women,” Dmitrieva said. “When you’re watching that movie, it’s so therapeutic because they’re calling out all these things that are still super relevant today but framed in the themes of the 19th century.”
Especially hopeful about the story’s effects on future generations was Iriss Barriga, a 42-year-old mom from Long Beach who works in child support. She sees a “combination of all” the March sisters in her 11-year-old daughter, Zoe Muñoz, whom she brought to the screening to help cultivate her self-worth.
“It was good, bringing my daughter,” Barriga said. “I think it’s going to get into her consciousness, that being independent and being a woman should be what she should go for.”
After a brief conversation with the mother-daughter duo, it’s safe to say the message was received.
“I liked how the girl didn’t want to follow how everybody else was,” Muñoz said. “She wanted to be her own person.”