Western civilization historically favors certain perspectives. The artists among us work diligently to honor the voices of the overlooked across media—just glimpse one of this year’s top Oscar contenders. But one phenom’s modern play tells a like-minded account of other “Hidden Figures,” including Henrietta Leavitt, whose astronomical research earned upturned noses simply due to her gender.
At 35 years old, Lauren Gunderson stands among the top 20 most-produced playwrights in the country. Known for her down-to-earth catalog of top-tier scientists, Gunderson’s piece examines Leavitt’s life for what it was: out of this world. And now, Northern Arizona University will join the ranks in producing the San Francisco-based writer’s acclaimed biographical work, Silent Sky.
Viewers are introduced to Heather Coleman as Leavitt and her real-life female colleagues in Ella Joseph as Williamina Fleming and Kristi Garcia as Annie Cannon. Two invented characters—Mariah Jones’s Margaret Leavitt and Hadley Singer’s Peter Shaw—round out the story.
As for Henrietta, she wasn’t rightly recognized in her lifetime. But she and her all-female group charged with counting stars on photographic plates at Harvard eventually changed astronomy forever thanks to her examination of Earth’s place in the cosmos and Fleming’s pinpoint on the Horsehead Nebula. This research even sparked Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the expanding universe.
“I know that sounds incredible, but it’s true,” director Bob Yowell notes.
Add to this the timeframe of women’s suffrage and a love story—however historically dubious—and viewers are in for a thoughtful evening, not a science lecture, he adds.
Singer stacks this play as the most important of his college career so far, next to last year’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Even with creative freedom in portraying this fictitious character, he explains Shaw’s motives reflect the way of the world in 1910.
“I think that I get to represent a huge problem that we face today, which is the prejudice that’s coming from the heteropatriarchy,” he asserts. “I don’t think my character is the embodiment of that, but … I get to show people this is the problem; we still have this problem, so what are we gonna do about it?”
In this vein, the play’s themes and discussions are both historical and oddly prophetic. As Jones explains, during their first rehearsal Yowell produced a New York Times article describing various social movements, including the Suffragettes at the turn of the century.
“There is still that movement today,” she notes of the post-Presidential Inauguration Women’s Marches across the world. Garcia carries the conversation full circle with one of her lines: “Yes, we’re marching in D.C. next month, you should join us!”
And in a world that continues to undermine accomplishments of certain groups, Coleman notes the play’s most poignant assertion: Value people for their work, not their gender. In this, Jones explains that Silent Sky demonstrates all areas of female strength: in the workplace, on the streets in protest, and, like her character, at home.
“It also shows that you don’t have to be at work to be a strong woman, you can be home raising children and be a very strong woman, too,” adds the actor, explaining her personal beliefs differ completely from her character.
Garcia says that the characters’ rights to choose, instead of compartmentalizing the movement, is the playwright’s show of feminism. Even Shaw acknowledges this through his words in the end, notes Jones, as Singer expands on the stigma clouding feminism today.
“The truth is there was one central idea to feminism and there was one solid thing to it—and people lost sight of it because people started linking misandry to feminism, but that’s not what it is,” he says. “What I would like to get across in this play is feminism itself, the definition, is equal rights—for everybody.”
He notes that Henrietta herself embodied the idea of judgment based on work, not on gender. Her portrayer, too, adds that the play pertains to the larger human experience and cultivation of personal relationships.
Joseph compounds that perspective, describing her character, Williamina, as a Scottish immigrant who worked her way into a successful position at the Harvard observatory. Through this added layer in perception’s modern veil, and citing famed cosmologist and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, she explains that humans are all basally the same: stardust.
Jones follows this thought with her favorite line she says speaks to the modern-ness of this play. “My character says, ‘You’d think a world war would make the stars seem trivial.” Coleman follows, “No, you would think that the stars would make war seem trivial.”
Jones adds, “I think the play itself is about that perspective … And it doesn’t matter what time period, where you are, who you are—it applies to everyone—it’s taking that moment and taking a new perspective and looking up at the stars and saying, ‘Wow, there’s a lot more.’ Regardless of what you believe in, there is a lot more.”
Silent Sky shows at the Studio Theatre Feb. 24–26 and March 1–5. Regular performances begin at 7:30 p.m. and Sun matinees start at 2 p.m. Tickets are $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and NAU employees, and $8 for youth and students. Learn more about the show and the new NAU parking policy by calling 523-9219 or at www.nau.edu/cto.