Deborah Brevoort’s “My Lord, What a Night” examines the explosive consequences of a real historical event. It’s 1937; the place, Princeton, New Jersey. Marian Anderson, the acclaimed African American contralto, had just played a concert to a standing ovation. This honor was quickly followed by a racist insult. The white-only Nassau Inn refused to give her a room. Albert Einstein was one of Anderson’s biggest fans. He had driven her to the hotel after her performance. After they turned Anderson away, he drove her to his home. Einstein then offered to leave her there for the night. Anderson accepted – and a powerful chain reaction ensued.
The piece begins the moment you just walked in. The sense of urgency does it too. A mob of reporters gathers in Einstein’s (aka David Edwards) front yard. You can’t see them, but you can hear them – they are screaming for an offer or a photo. White Brainboy opens doors to Black Songbird! This is a story now! Then comes Einstein’s boss, Abraham Flexner (Rod Brogan). He wants to make sure there is no story to print.
Flexner tries to move Anderson (Thursday Farrar) to the Colored YMCA. It seems like a cowardly fear of bad PR at first, but its motives go deeper. Flexner is the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He used this position to save a handful of Jewish scientists from Nazi Germany. Princeton University is still subject to the quota system – a racist quota that strictly limits the number of Jewish faculty members. If Einstein’s recent bloody act hits national headlines, the university could lock its doors even more – refugees included.
Anderson is actually considering leaving. Then Mary Church Terrell (Nehassaiu deGannes) arrives. She is the founder of the National Association of Colored Women and wants the contralto to take a public stand. Will she?
The conflict amounts to a war between the public and private selves. On the one hand, a physicist who has become a public figure and uses his fame with relish to drive political change. On the other hand, a talented singer who doesn’t want to become an icon, even though that might give her the power to actually change things.
The piece fast-forward to 1939, the year of Anderson’s seminal concert at the base of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. She was originally supposed to sing in Constitution Hall. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) protested because of the color of their skin. Your first thought is to contact Eleanor Roosevelt, a high profile DAR member. (It’s possible thanks to Einstein’s friendship with the first lady.) She could pressure the organization to change. Mrs. Roosevelt is actually stepping down from the DAR. It occurs to Anderson that singing in front of a separate, all-white audience but singing in public in front of everyone at the base of the Lincoln Memorial is no victory. That sets the stage for Anderson’s groundbreaking concert – and the very public position it takes. But that uplifting moment is undermined by the dark story. Einstein, the pacifist, learns that Hitler’s scientists are working on an atomic bomb. As much as he loathes it, he must write to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And tell him America has to build its own atomic bomb first. Oy.
The acting is strong but underplayed. They are smart, civilized individuals. Don’t expect a screaming match. Farrar’s portrayal is very internalized. Her Anderson doesn’t have her heart on her sleeve and she thinks about every word before she says it. Edwards’ Einstein is a lazy prankster and he has nothing to prove. He is very light hearted until some outrage stirs his sense of injustice. (It reminds me of the Silicon Valley billionaires walking around in ragged, old clothes because they can.) DeGannes’ Terrell burns with a jewel-like flame. Her character is not a jumping chicken, but her inner conviction drives her to masterpieces of tremendous energy – and sometimes to the point of collapse. Brogan’s Flexner is nuanced. He keeps pleading for the easy way out. He knows how weak he seems, but he is motivated by an inner strength.
Lea Umberger’s costumes match the characters perfectly. They range from Anderson’s well-tailored public image on the one hand and Einstein’s indifference to the outside world on the other. The set designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay describe Einstein’s study as a place of creative chaos. Doric columns imply classical order. But books and papers grow like kudzu all around them.
Kate Alexander’s direction brings order to this clash of personalities. You know where everyone is. She maintains this clarity while strictly avoiding the artificiality of an obvious message game. Brava.
The Brevoort script is strong. The playwright achieves this strength without hype. Your characters are real; their dialogue is never forced. If this piece had been an episode on TV series, they would call it a “bottle show”. It’s a small, self-contained action in a single room, but it represents great moments in history that unfold in the outside world. Brevoort’s lightning captured in a bottle with this piece. It’s never easy. But she did it.
“My Lord, What a Night” offers an insightful glimpse into two groundbreaking moments in history. It’s the kind of meaty summer kitchen you’d expect at FST. But that’s not the only stage it’s opening now. The local premiere of FST is now part of the National New Play Network’s rolling world premiere in theaters across the country. We hope that this will continue in the future.