'They persevered': TheatreAC to tackle gender inequality in new historical drama
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Kelbi Havens, front, stars in TheatreAC's "Silent Sky."
Photo by Chip Chandler

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

An especially timely historical drama shows that today's headlines about women's mistreatment in the workplace is certainly nothing new.

Silent Sky, which opens at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 30, follows the struggles of a young scientist, Henrietta Leavitt (played by Kelbi Havins), as she attempts to find her place in the academic world while working as an assistant at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s.

This unsung heroine's work as a human computer — similar to that done by the African-American women at NASA decades after her who were featured in the film Hidden Figures — made discoveries that gave astronomers the ability to determine the distance between the Earth and far-flung galaxies. Her work also led Edward Hubble to the theory that the universe is still expanding.

"In 1925, the Swedish Academy of Sciences tried to nominate her for the Nobel Prize, only to learn that she had died of cancer years earlier," wrote The Mercury News' Karen D'Souza.

Her co-workers, Williamina Fleming (played by Hannah Johnson) and Annie Jump Cannon (played by Darrianna Ferguson), similarly made invaluable contributions to the field of astronomy. But their legacies, like Leavitt's, have only recently begun to be fully appreciated — certainly more so than in their own lifetimes, when they're not even allowed to touch a telescope considered to be the world's finest that just happens to be at Harvard with them.

"Were they slighted? Oh yeah, totally. And yet, they persevered," said Silent Sky director Ray Newburg.

That's what makes playwright Lauren Gunderson's work special, Newburg said.

"There's a much more positive arc in this," he said, comparing it to the uplift of Hidden Figures. "Solemness? Yes. Sadness? No."

And extraordinarily timely.

"It gets more and more so as the year rolls on," Newburg said. "I don't know that I chose the show to capitalize on that. I really did just like the story."

The five-person cast of mostly freshmen (rounded out by Kody Hodge as Peter Shaw and Lauren Cotton as Margaret Leavitt) are learning plenty, too, he said — not just about how to stage what, for most of them, is their first drama, but also about how society treated their female ancestors.

"I was amazed," Havins said. "I'm in awe of (Henrietta). She did so much, but I'd never heard of her — but I don't think most people did."

The play will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 and 3 p.m. Dec. 3 in the AC Experimental Theatre on the Washington Street campus. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for AC students, faculty and staff. Call 806-371-5359.




Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at Chip.Chandler@actx.edu, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and on Facebook.