Following a 1937 performance in Princeton, N.J., world-famous contralto Marian Anderson could not secure lodging at a local hotel because of her race.
Fortunately, the renowned physicist Albert Einstein, seated in the audience, invited her to stay at his home during which the two, formerly unknown to one another, discovered they shared a love for both music and human rights.
Their encounter, which in many ways mirrors themes that remain prevalent today, takes center stage in “My Lord, What a Night.” The play, written by Deborah Brevoort and directed by Sheldon Epps, continues at Ford’s Theatre through Oct. 24.
“I’ve always been interested in historical events or relationships we don’t know much about,” said Epps on why he chose this play. “When I was told about this play, like everybody else, I said ‘Oh my God, they were friends?’”
A Struggle Over What to Do
There’s a clear sense of “push-pull” to the friendship between Anderson and Einstein portrayed with intense conviction by Felicia Curry as Anderson and Christopher Bloch as Einstein, both veterans with Ford’s Theatre. While Einstein wants to stand up against the treatment experienced by his new friend, Anderson wants to keep a low profile to ensure her career does not come to an abrupt end.
The incident took place two years before Anderson would be banned from singing at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in the District which paved the way for her memorable performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“Theatrically it was good and exciting,” said Epps about Anderson’s historically significant performance. “Socially and politically, it’s very sad that much in this play deserves to be discussed right now. We need to be reminded that these inequities and injustices still exist and still need to be fought.”
Rounding out the four-person ensemble for “My Lord, What a Night,” audiences will see Michael Russotto as Abraham Flexner, head of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and Fanchelle Stewart Dorn as Mary Church Terrell, a well-known civil rights activist and suffragist who lived in Washington, D.C.
Flexner and Terrell contribute to the debate of whether to protest or to not protest. Flexner, who brought Einstein to Princeton, reminded the physicist that he’s on shaky ground at the university because he has not made any new discoveries. Terrell remains frustrated by Anderson’s unwillingness to leverage her notoriety to help her people.
Epps has a perspective on what the play uncovers.
“It’s really about a woman, a very famous woman finding her voice,” he said. “She was reticent and reluctant about raising her voice on social and political matters.”
“My Lord, What a Night,” originally scheduled to open at Ford’s Theatre last year, had to be postponed due to the pandemic. The play, based on a relatively unknown 1937 historical nugget, remains relevant today. Sheldon Epps recently addressed the paradoxical encounter.
In-person performances of “My Lord, What a Night” continue through Oct. 24. Go to Ford’s Theatre – Washington, D.C. for details related to safety protocol and tickets.