Picture a stage that is consumed by darkness. Silence is suddenly replaced by the echoes of a woman taking a deep breath, almost as if she is coming to life. That woman’s name is Emilie du Chatelet, and her questions about science, love and philosophy are shining an incandescent light in the world of theater – even centuries after her death.
In her play, “Emilie, La Marquiese Du Chatalet Defends Her Life Tonight,” Lauren Gunderson cleverly opens at the close. Emilie has died, but her questions still linger in the heartbeat of this show. Upon taking her first breath after death, Emilie seeks to find the answers of her life. Driven by her hunger for understanding, the character transforms the stage into a place of passion and contemplation. By doing so, audiences get a rare glimpse into Emilie’s personal affairs, as well as her intellectual endeavors during the early 18th century.
Remarkably educated, Emilie’s work rivaled the great thinkers of her time, including Voltaire and Rousseau. She was well versed in mathematics and physics, and her contributions to the world of science were heavily influenced by Isaac Newton. The play explores these aspects of her life. It also unveils Emilie’s ongoing relationship with Voltaire and drives the plot to its main theme, which is the couple’s shared interest in intellectual gain.
No doubt, when trying to play the role of a genius who lived ahead of her time, actresses might find it hard to relate to Emilie’s character. But that was not the case for Georgia Southern University Theatre major Joey Hukin. From day one of her audition, Hukin found ways to embody Emilie’s essence. By the time the show made its debut at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Region IV in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Hukin had grown quite comfortable in her role.
“Something that got me really involved in the character was the fact that it was a woman trying to be herself in a world that was entirely against her. I can connect with that on a lot of different levels,” Hukin said.
When making those connections, it can often be difficult to separate yourself from the character that you are trying to portray.
“It’s hard to draw the line between the two. A lot of the time I felt like she was me, and I didn’t know where Emilie ended and Joey began,” she said.
Another major aspect of Joey’s role was the relationship she built with other cast members.
“I think the best performances are when you’re not paying attention to yourself, you’re paying attention to everyone around you. You’re all in it together. The more you work with people, the better it gets. And because this was a small cast with seven people, we got to know each other very well. The chemistry that we had together was indescribable. If I was on stage by myself, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it,” Hukin added.
All of these factors combined led to an awe inspiring performance from the cast, and they have even gained national recognition for their efforts. In fact, Hukin was recently recognized in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center with the Hilton World Wide Award for Outstanding Performance in a Play. A great accomplishment, considering she was one of four students in the nation to receive this award. Through this opportunity, Hukin was able to attend acting workshops, as well as make great connections for the future.
Part of the human condition is being able to survive long enough to unravel the obscurities of life. When people pass before all of their questions are answered, we fix our eyes on the stage and wait for a voice like Hukin’s to deliver a powerful message from beyond the grave: “Love of learning is the most necessary passion…in it lies our happiness. It’s a sure remedy for what ails us, an unending source of pleasure.” - Emilie Du Chatalet