Holly Twyford as Williamina, Laura C. Harris as Henrietta and Nora Achrati as Annie // Photo: Scott Suchman

Ford’s Theatre Explores Leavitt Sisters In Silent Sky

Since January 24, Ford’s Theatre has carried the baton of diverse art with feminist American milestone Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson.

Illuminating and reversing the extensively egregious track record of marginalized people playing significant roles in scientific discoveries (as well as many other disciplines), while receiving little credit nor accolade is a well-fitted practice in this historic theatrical space. 

Set just a decade after the turn of the 20th century, as women successfully demand to exercise their right to vote, Gunderson explores the sisterhood of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt and musician Margaret Leavitt; where the dichotomy of science and religion, and science and art conflict and agree, building the foundation for this partially fictional, yet historical tale.

Seema Sueko is taxed with coxswaining this drama mere months after directing, The Right to be Forgotten at Arena Stage. Sueko debuts at Ford’s Theatre with source material The San Francisco Chronicle deems, “sheer magic.”

“I grew up on the Hawaiian Islands,” Sueko shares in a Ford’s Theatre blog post, recalling her connection to this project and her motivation to tell an authentic story. “From a young age, I learned about Polynesians looking to the stars to navigate the oceans.”

This fact is widely unknown to most Americans, similar to that of the work and impact of Henrietta. However, while unfamiliar, the added knowledge is quite invaluable when considering how it enhances our understanding of the cosmos. So much, that to raise awareness of Henrietta’s work and to inspire future women scientists, former president Barrack Obama, during his last term, released a short video praising the astronomer.

For knowledge sake, Henrietta’s work in the Harvard Observatory was nothing short of groundbreaking. After discovering 2,400 new variable stars, “Leavitt’s Law” was formed, enabling future scientists to measure the distance between galaxies and map the Milky Way and so much more.

Silent Sky effortlessly transcends time, Sueko explains, “all plays exist in the period they’re set, in the time it was written, as well as in the time we produce it, and that’s fantastic.”

Though a fictional account, Gunderson’s work considers the various encounters most plausible for the period, giving new breath to an old world. 

“What Gunderson is able to do in the play is take us back to a period over 100 years ago, but from a modern point of view. It feels very accessible,” says Laura C. Harris, who plays Henrietta in the forthcoming play.

Plagued by a patriarchal misogynistic society, Henrietta’s road to discovery was littered with countless obstacles. Nevertheless, her determination to learn and work prevailed.

Gunderson has conceived a narrative where theatergoers can attest to the gender inequities lived by Henrietta, and subconsciously see  how prevalent they are today.

In an interview with the Austin Playhouse in Austin, Texas, Gunderson expressed, “We are still in the unfortunate rut of under-opportunity and under-representation for women in the sciences and tech. Women aren’t asking for special treatment, we are showing how special we already are and always have been. We’re not asking anyone to let us participate, we are exclaiming that we have participated in discoveries, breakthroughs and wild achievement all along.”

The religious difficulties faced by Henrietta were sourced from her sister, Margaret, played by Emily Kester. Sueko explains, “The two sisters looked up to the heavens, and see two completely different things. For Henrietta, she wants to understand the science of all the sky, and Margaret sees the pearly gates and God. [Henrietta] is risking the heaven that her sister believes in, to find the heaven she wants to study.”

One of America’s most prominent playwrights, Gunderson has made a name for herself, as she maintains an aptitude for innovating intricate stories that encompass romance, science and history, and with Silent Sky, she pushes the envelope further.

“When someone comes to see this play, they will leave having a rich understanding of what [Henreitta] and her colleagues did,” Harris exclaims. 

Silent Sky is showing at Ford Theatre until February 23. Tickets range from $22-$72 and can be purchased online at here.  

Ford Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; 202-347-4833; www.fords.org


Langford Wiggins

Langford Wiggins is the CEO and founder of LANCAR Ink, a nonprofit news outlet that produces and distributes distinctly diverse multimedia content created by multicultural entry-level and matriculating journalists to news outlets, showcasing the impact of charitable initiatives, programs, and services aiding a plethora of communities. His personal multimedia works have appeared in five different languages and five countries on Voice of America and TheRoot.com.