By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
WASHINGTON, DC – Have you heard about the unlikely long-time friendship in the late 1930’s between Albert Einstein (the world’s most famous theoretical physicist) and Marian Anderson (at the time, a world-famous singer)? No? Well, luckily for you, you can learn all about it. Ford’s Theatre is presenting a superbly written, acted, and directed production about that history-making event called My Lord, What a Night (a takeoff of the negro spiritual, My Lord, What a Morning). It was movingly written by Deborah Brevoort and expertly directed by Ford’s Theatre Senior Artistic Advisor, Sheldon Epps.
Why should you care about this situation, you might ask? Because the premise of this play is based on the fact that the revered American singer, contralto Marian Anderson was told she could not stay the night in a local hotel in Princeton, N.J., (where she has just sung to a cheering, sold out audience) because she was Black. Interestingly, the owner of the hotel had been among that wildly enthusiastic audience. So, where did she stay? Were there any repercussions or charges brought against the hotel because of this indignity? Intrigued? You should be!
Quoting from the Ford’s Theatre program about this play: “After performing in Princeton, New Jersey, Marian Anderson is denied lodging at the Nassau Inn because she is Black. Einstein invites her to stay at his home, and the two form a profound friendship based on their love for music and their commitment to human rights. My Lord, What a Night takes us into Einstein’s home and imagines the conversations and circumstances that led to Anderson’s historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.”
Elite Cast Captures Einstein and Anderson
Leading the elite cast of four and powerfully realizing the great American contralto Marian Anderson is Felicia Curry, who inhabits Miss Anderson with great gravitas and style, including her magnificent singing voice on a couple of iconic songs. And imbuing the greatly admired physicist with a light touch through twinkly eyes and amusing repartee is the fine actor, Christopher Bloch.
Rounding out the cast of four are Abraham Flexner, convincingly played by Michael Russotto, and Mary Church Terrell, played by the amazing actress Franchelle Stewart Dorn with a “take-no-prisoners” style. Flexner was an educational reformer and manager of philanthropy, who created the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, with Einstein as the jewel in the crown, after Einstein left Europe during the Nazi persecution of Jews. Terrell, a longtime advocate for human rights, is heading up the charge for civil rights for Black people, and she sees a great opportunity for a new leader in the fight for Black American equality through this unfortunate situation.
Civil Rights in the 1930s
Flexner and Terrell (who arrive separately and for different reasons at Einstein’s home) instigate lively and heated discussions about how Marian should take a stand for her own civil rights and they point out that this situation parallels how the Jews are still being treated by the Nazis and the fact that Einstein had the leave Germany because of it. Marian, however, wants things to stay as they are and not make waves. She is afraid of losing her career if she is thought of as a pushy Black woman and thinks she can be of more help to Black equality by exemplifying what can be achieved through continuing to sing on the world’s stages.
Flexner, too, sees no reason why things can’t stay as they are and advises Marian to leave Einstein’s home quietly and stay at the local YWCA, so a scandal won’t erupt for his star Princeton professor possibly causing loss of funding for his institute because….one of his big donors owns the Nassau Inn. Flexner feels that he can make more of an impact on the Nazis with that money helping other Jewish scientists flee Europe.
So now we have four competing and compelling points of view: two for the status quo and two for radical change. This is a recipe for extremely absorbing and thought-provoking theatre, culminating with Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of more than 75,000 people in a concert on April 9, 1939. What she achieved that day through the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR, and many organizations, was fortunately recorded and will forever be replayed and remembered by grateful Americans.
Ford’s Senior Artistic Advisor Sheldon Epps (Twelve Angry Men) directed this marvelous new play, and I need to give shout out to the amazing creative team on this production, including Meghan Raham (Scenic Designer), Karen Perry, (Costume Designer), Max Doolittle (Lighting Designer), John Gromada (Sound Designer), Clint Allen (Projection Designer, Danna Rosedahl (Hair and Make-up designer), and Brandon Prendergast (Production Stage Manager). Also, there were three reporters’ voices that were heard but the reporters were not seen. They were Eric Hissom, Lawrence Redmond, and Stephen Schmidt. Great job, all of you, truly!
I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone run, not walk, to see this totally engaging production before it closes on October 24. Running time is approximately 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission.
Ticket and Covid-19 Information:
My Lord, What a Night plays through October 24, 2021, at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC, and streams on-demand from October 11 to November 4, 2021. To purchase in-person tickets ($18-$68) or streaming tickets ($16 per person) and for Covid-19 Health and Safety rules , call 888-616-0270 or go online at the Ford’s Theatre website www.fords.org.