Last year’s Oscar-nominated and elsewhere much-awarded film Hidden Figures revealed how African-American women were vital in the 1950’s NASA Space Race. New light is now being shed on other women, long kept in the shadows. They were essential to American discoveries about what is out there in that space. This is the essence of Lauren Gunderson’s 2015 play Silent Sky, now revealed by Bluebarn Theatre.
It looks further back, starting 100 years ago, to the life and the scientific explorations of Henrietta Swan Leavitt and other real women who worked at Harvard Observatory at the dawn of modern astronomy. A breakthrough by Leavitt enabled astronomers — including Edwin Hubble — to calculate distances between Earth and remote galaxies and stars. During her career, Leavitt also discovered more than 2,400 variable stars. She was later memorialized via asteroid 5383 Leavitt and the Leavitt moon crater.
Leavitt had no easy path to get that far. She confronted gender discrimination and restrictions at a time when our society was unaccustomed to strong women in such men’s worlds. So did her equally real colleagues, two very different women, Williamina Fleming, and Annie Cannon. Cannon later became a suffragette, marching in the streets for equality.
Like those black women some 30 years later, they were called “computers,” a pre-electronic term referring to people making machine-assisted calculations. In this case, it meant studying photographic plates to measure and record variations in the brightness of stars. During that time, Henrietta came to believe something which defied the male staff consensus, that there are galaxies beyond our own.
As a play, this may sound more like a power point presentation rather than a drama, but Gunderson has come up with a story that evidently intelligently blends wit, humor, history and something resembling romantic love.
“A luminously beautiful play, …lovingly crafted… an intellectual epic told on an intimate scale,” said the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Gunderson is the most produced living playwright in the nation for the 2016-17 season, according to American Theatre magazine. In her mid-30s, says the Boston Globe, she is “an adventurous writer who marries playful whimsy with a spirit of intellectual inquiry and engagement with our times.” She’s also written many other plays about real people, about science and spin-offs from Shakespeare. E.g. Ada and The Engine, EMILIE: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, Toil and Trouble, We Are Denmark and Exit- Pursued by a Bear. http://laurengunderson.com/
Silent Sky runs March. 23 – April 15 at Bluebarn Theatre, 1106 South 10th St. Thurs.-Sat.: 7:30 p.m., Sun. April 2: 6 p.m. Sun. April 9: 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets: $25-$30. www.bluebarn.org