A new play about an actual 1937 event involving renowned singer Marian Anderson and scientist Albert Einstein becomes the first play in Sarasota to address some of the concerns about the lack of equity, diversity and inclusion in the arts. the scene raised after the murder of George Floyd.
And local audiences are among the first in the country to experience the story told by Deborah Brevoort in “My Lord, What a Night,” which begins this week at the Keating Theater at the Florida Studio Theater.
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The play is presented as part of the National New Play Network program, which allows several theaters to try their luck on new works in what is called a continuous world premiere.
In fact, the Florida Studio Theater had planned to produce the play long before theaters and other performing arts organizations began releasing statements last summer in favor of greater performance on their stages.
The Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, was the first to host the show in 2019. The coronavirus pandemic delayed the project, which resumed in February with a video-on-demand version of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater. . FST is the latest company to create the coin.
Brevoort said he has become more timely and put on more weight due to the events surrounding Floyd’s death.
“No one was interested in a historical drama set in 1937 with Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson,” she said in an interview with Zoom. “No one would pick it up. Then things happened with the Contemporary American Theater Festival and the rolling world premiere started before the world stopped, then George Floyd, and it’s now in the air. History is history. The mode is the same, it’s just that its time has come.
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The play chronicles how Anderson and Einstein developed an unexpected friendship when she was refused a room at a white-only hotel near Princeton, New Jersey, where she was performing. It was two years before his famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial when he was denied access to DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, DC
Einstein invited her to stay at his home, an act of kindness that sparked a lasting relationship between two very different personalities who both faced prejudice at the turn of the 20th century.
Brevoort, who is part of FST’s Playwrights Project, also brings two other people into the mix and the conversations – Abraham Flexner, Einstein’s boss at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ and leader of reform of the education; and civil rights activist and suffragist Mary Church Terrell.
The two weren’t really there at the time, but Brevoort said she was “personally opposed to documentary theater. Documentary theater should be left to documentary filmmakers. What I’m looking for is to fill in the blanks, the place in history which is not fleshed out, which the imagination can bring to life.
Einstein and Anderson took different paths in their struggles for civil rights and against racism and anti-Semitism.
“She refused to protest, to speak politically, to take a stand,” Brevoort said. “She was solid that way, and Einstein couldn’t shut up about an injustice. He was leading the parade on every problem and was furious with people who didn’t. “
The two characters were “almost in conflict, they were so different, but they got so close”.
Brevoort discovered the story in one of his favorite childhood books, Anderson’s autobiography, “My Lord, What Morning.”
“After performing for the crowned heads of Europe she sang in Princeton and went to the Nassau Inn and was thrown out on the streets and Einstein took her in. I held onto this wonderful event for a play,” said the playwright.
She first wrote about it for a Liberty Live commission in a one-act play produced at the Liberty Museum / Premiere Stage in New Jersey in 2016.
But Brevoort thought there was more story to tell, and she started expanding it from the original 45 minutes to a two-act drama. The second half turned out to be much more difficult than she expected, but she was propelled, in part, because of the parallels she could see in her own life with her husband, the winner of a Tony Award Chuck Cooper, a black actor who has been the subject of racial profiling.
“The decision is always presented to her, which one of them are we fighting and which one are we letting go,” she said. “We had five incidents, brought the authorities to court three times and won each time. ”
Develop new work
In the NNPN program, each theater presents its own production of the script to give the playwright more opportunities to see different interpretations and approaches to how the story is told and the actors are portrayed.
In Sarasota, Anderson is played by Thursday M. Farrar, who is making his FST debut in a role that requires dramatic acting and a bit of vocals. David Edwards, another actor new to the theater, plays Einstein. The Returning Actors Rod Brogan (who appeared last year in “American Son”) plays Flexner, with Nehassaiu deGannes, who had a starring role in “Other People’s Money,” as Terrell.
Director Kate Alexander said Brevoort has continued to work on the play over the past few years, but the changes were more tweaks than big rewrites.
Alexander said that although FST planned the play before the events of last year, they are changing the way the play is seen or perceived.
“Since everything that’s happened there is just a particular poignant character, and that has also opened up more sensitivities,” she said. “This piece has two very strong black actresses. They are not victims of society, they navigate it as genius and gifted women not only in a racially divided country, but also in what Isabelle Wilkerson calls a caste system in America.
Alexander said it was also reminiscent of the recent debate over critical race theory, which some states have banned from education systems.
Terrell delivered a speech in the play in which she questions Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as a great emancipator, Alexander said. “It’s nothing negative, but we have more complex perspectives on the heroes. When you are in the room with these brilliant people, you wonder what are people so afraid of when they learn their story. “
Brevoort will be in Sarasota to observe how the audience reacts to the play and “to make sure the changes I’ve made work and adjust that if they don’t.” I’m always interested in how people interpret it and it tells you what you have and what you don’t have.
“My Lord, what a night”
By Deborah Brevoort. Directed by Kate Alexander. Runs Wednesday through August 15, Florida Studio Theater Keating Theater, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Ticket information: 941-366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org