SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 12, 2019 — In our previous review, we examined Michael Weller’s strange, Dadaist vision of a history that is to come. Deborah Brevoort’s My Lord, What a Night, whisks us back in time to visit a pair of related historical events. These center on a Depression Era encounter between Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson. Their encounter finds the rarified worlds of theoretical science and classical music running headlong into the parallel universe of racial politics.
On the plus side, the twin stories that make this play tick involve an unusual, seminal pair of events that hinted at the beginning – and the end – of the institutionalized racial politics and policies that persisted in much of the US even after the end of the Reconstruction Era in the late 1870s.
Einstein and Anderson: Science and Art confront the spectre of racism
Having escaped Nazi Germany, Einstein (portrayed in this production by John Leonard Pielmeir) joined the teaching and research faculty at Princeton University in the late 1930s. In the spring of 1937, Marian Anderson (Angela Wildflower) arrived in Princeton where she gave a vocal recital. After the event, Anderson was scheduled to overnight in a local Princeton hotel, where her manager had arranged accommodations.
However, the hotel manager discovered that Marian Anderson was black. He subsequently refused to honor her reservation. Einstein graciously invited Anderson to stay overnight in his Princeton home, and she accepted.
Einstein may have been a towering genius. But like many such figures in history, he was not up to date on American racial politics at the time. Namely, it wasn’t a good idea for any single male public figure, particularly one of Einstein’s stature, to put any woman – let alone a “woman of color” – up overnight in his home. Since that could mean only one thing.
University politics and government policies complicate the situation. Sound familiar?
With the media gathering like an early flash mob outside Einstein’s home, the situation deteriorated further when Einstein and Anderson are joined by Einstein’s Department Chair Abraham Flexner (Larry Paulsen) and NAACP representative Mary Church Terrell (Lizan Mitchell).
Flexner tries to persuade Einstein to rescind his offer and save his department – and Princeton – from the negative fallout of such a scandal. On the other hand, the activist Terrell attempts to persuade Anderson to up the ante by addressing the press outside and using the ongoing incident to put civil rights activism on America’s front pages.
And this is just Act I.
Act II follows up on the action roughly two years later in 1939. Once again we find the same four characters meeting at Einstein’s house. They’re involved once again dealing with a racially charged incident. But this one was closer to our own locale in Washington, D.C.
We’re referring to the now infamous refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to allow Anderson to proceed with a recital to be held at the DAR’s massive Constitution Hall. Located in downtown D.C. (and still standing), Constitution Hall was for decades the only concert hall in the nation’s capital capable of hosting a large symphony orchestra concert or a grand opera production.
The DAR and the Holocaust up the ante once again
Once again, scandal erupted when DAR refused to back down on its position. Which at the time was not uncommon in this still-segregated capital city. The ultimate solution, was as magnificent as it was elegant: the astonishingly successful rescheduling of Anderson’s concert to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
An additional complication in this play involves the staffing of Einstein’s department with other brilliant scientists just like him. In other words, additional at-risk Jewish scholars desperate to escape Nazi Germany with their lives, their families and their research intact. Einstein’s department head tries to persuade him to turn Anderson away to avoid the impact of the potential scandal on the university’s ability to save more Jewish scholars. This evolves into a hierarchy of outrage, doubling the moral dilemma for all four characters. They confront a situation in which saving the very lives of imperiled Jewish scientists potentially conflicts with promoting freedom and justice for black American citizens.
A sensitive perspective on American history
Brevoort brings Depression Era / pre-WW II history vividly to life in this play. In so doing, whe offers some much-needed perspective on actual American history. Her characters are consistent and well defined. That’s particularly true in her treatment of Einstein and Anderson. Both come across as extremely reluctant crusaders who, perhaps naively, desire to remain above controversy while speaking to the public through scientific brilliance (Einstein) and artistic excellence (Anderson).
Dramatic hits and misses
This play misses the mark, however, on two counts, one relatively major and another a bit more disquieting.
The major point: a good bit of the dialogue is a bit too self-aware, at least in the politico-historical sense. In other words, a great many of the characters’ exchanges, particularly in Act I, give us a sense that every action, every nuance each character takes should be seen by the world as a profound moment history.
Most individuals do not speak to one another as if they’re auditioning for a separate chapter in history books. In this sense, the characters of Flexner and Terrell in particular come across as rather self-consciously important. Some of their at times pompous dialogue fails to ring true.
The other problem is momentary but irritating. That’s Terrell’s observation that the DAR is essentially doing what they do to “Make America Great.” In an otherwise admirably nonpartisan drama, this line is what the blogosphere might characterize as a “dog whistle.” It irritates playgoers on one side of the aisle, while evoking a knowing, snarky laugh from those on the other side. The reaction is autonomic.
A touch of virtue-signaling?
Brevoort discusses this issue briefly in the extended online version of an interview that’s excerpted in this year’s CATF program. When asked about the line, she refers to a pre-production reading of this play before a mostly conservative audience in Orlando, Florida. The reading appeared to have been remarkably well-received.
“Then came the line about ‘Make America Great,’ which actually was one of goals of the DAR. That line broke the spell of a number of people in the audience. Suddenly they saw me trying to make a political statement about Trump. They smelled an agenda where there wasn’t an agenda. I lost them, and I don’t want to lose anybody. If that line – historically accurate as it is – stops the empathy, kicks somebody out of the play, and makes them retreat from the story, that line’s not worth it to me.”
The solution is to cut the line in question, something that should have happened before the play’s first CATF performance. It’s unnecessary and indeed “kicks somebody out of the play.” Without the line, which adds nothing to the play, audience members on both sides of the political aisle can easily identify with this drama’s story line and the agonizing real-life decisions it confronts.
Wrapping things up
Though it sometimes comes across stiffly with its occasionally self-important tone, Brevoort’s My Lord, What a Night unfolds as a thoughtful, often gripping meditation on history. In its treatment of Einstein and Anderson, it portrays two characters more interested in doing actual good rather than bludgeoning those who may wish them ill. John Leonard Pielmeir’s Einstein and Angela Wildflower’s Anderson perfectly reflect the intellectual and spiritual essence of their characters in a pair of genuinely inspired performances.
Scenic Designer David Barber’s vestibule / library set is superbly detailed. Better yet, it’s economical, too, serving as the shell set for another CATF play, Ellen Fairey’s Support Group for Men.
Direction by Ed Herendeen lends vividness to a drama that’s more dependent on words rather than physical action. All in all, it’s a fine effort by cast and crew, and a thoughtful meditation on American history in our troubled times.
Rating: ** 1/2 (Two and one-half stars)
– Headline image: John Leonard Pielmeier, Larry Paulsen, Lizan Mitchell, and Angela Wildflower
in Deborah Brevoort’s My Lord, What a Night. Photo courtesy of Seth Freeman and CATF.
Getting tickets and getting there:
See our CATF overview here. We’ll have lots more on each play as the week progresses. If you have interest in exploring and/or attending what CATF 2019 has to offer, our best advice? Head straight for the festival’s website, CATF online: www.CATF.org. Purchase tickets or full ticket packages right on the site. Or call the CATF box office at 800.999.CATF (2283).
Additionally, this site also lists dining a wide array of dining options. These are considerable, given the small size of this town. Additional information includes places to stay in and around Shepherdstown. The town is located in the Eastern Panhandle of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia. Whether you’re a D.C. area local or coming in from out of town, check out directions for getting there.