“Hellcats” brings piracy from sea to stage

A photo of the cast of Hellcats performs on stage.
“Hellcats” brought legendary pirates to life over four consecutive nights of shows in the Massman Theatre. (Kate Schaaf)

From its opening line, “The story I am about to tell you is a lie,” “Hellcats” whisks the audience aboard The William, where the play plunges into the mysteries of legendary swashbucklers Anne Bonny, Mary Read and Captain Jack Rackam. 

A fictionalized retelling of the pirates’ lives, “Hellcats” follows Read and her childhood friend Pierre Marlowe as they become members of The William’s crew under Rackam and his right hand woman, Bonny. After months at sea, Read and Bonny grow closer, but face adversity at the hands of pirate-turned-privateer Jonathan Barnet, who hunts pirates on behalf of the British Empire.

“Hellcats” ran for four consecutive nights from April 13 to 16 in the Massman Theatre. Taking the story from script to stage took months of rehearsals in anticipation of a live audience. 

“The audience brings the energy and the vibe into the show,” said Nina Santoyo, a junior majoring in theater who played Pierre Marlowe. “The actors love having an audience to watch us because they give us so much and we’re able to use their energy and put out so much in return.”

Based on kernels of historical truth, “Hellcats” embraces the mystique of its characters. Casey Fleming, “Hellcats” playwright and a sophomore majoring in narrative studies and themed entertainment, began writing the story after becoming interested in how little was known about Bonny and Read. 

“Almost everything that we know about pirates comes from this one book … Written under a pen name,” Fleming said. “The only reason that we know any of them exist is because there’s a court document that says their names and the days they die … And something about that I just found incredibly, wonderfully compelling.”

“Hellcats” is Fleming’s first full-length play. They began writing the script in May 2022 and later that fall, pitched the first act to ART/EMIS, an intersectional creative community at USC that helps produce student projects. ART/EMIS brought executive producer Micah Slater and director Grace Robinson onto the creative team and opened auditions the following January. 

With rehearsals ongoing, additional members joined the creative team. Kaianna Kaneshiro, the costume designer and a freshman majoring in media arts and practice, created the iconic outfits of the pirate crew.

Kaneshiro said she drew from her personal interest in pirates to design the cast’s maritime wardrobes. 

“I’m a huge pirate enthusiast,” Kaneshiro said. “Every character has their own individual color. Anne has red, Mary has blue.”

Like any great pirate tale, “Hellcats” placed its characters in plenty of spectacular sword fights. Bonny, Read and Rackam are joined by their comedic yet ruthless ensemble crew, who plunder and defend the ship at any cost. 

“[The crewmen] have a lot of worldbuilding, but we also have a lot of dynamics with each other … The crewmen are very special, because none of them work without each other” said Scott Altsuler, a freshman studying psychology, who played Noah Harwood, one of the crewmen.

As the dynamics between Bonny, Read, Marlowe and Rackam grow more complicated, the crewmen provide a humorous addition to the tension with their bumbling quips and tight knit hijinks. 

“We help set the tone for what life on The William is like,” said Addie Lillard, a sophomore studying art, who played crewman Thomas Earl. “We’re just there to be silly pirate guys.”

Similar to the story’s crew, the “Hellcats” cast grew close over rehearsals. 

“I honestly think these are some of my favorite people that I’ve met at this school,” Lillard said. “Everyone involved with the project is a fantastic human, and … So committed to making this show awesome.”

One of the greatest mysteries of the show is Bonny, the second-in-command aboard The William and a strong fighter who falls in love with Read. 

“I could relate to her on so many levels,” said Lauren Holder, Bonny’s actress and a freshman majoring in acting, stage and screen. “She’s very aggressive … She knows what she wants, and her story is very feminist … She was ahead of her time and not even on purpose. She was just being her and doing her.” 

Bonny and Read’s love story propels the plot, but their queerness isn’t the focus. 

“The thing about ‘Hellcats’ is … [That] being gay isn’t a thing,” said Nations, a freshman majoring in theater who played James Ashworth, an English privateer. “That’s not the point of the story. It just happens and it’s a beautiful part of their lives, but it’s not something that they’re being oppressed for … It was really lovely to be a part of a plain, queer love story.”