March 22, 2023 634 PM
ALPINE — The Sul Ross Theatre Department will put on “Silent Sky,” a play written by Lauren Gunderson that chronicles the life of Henrietta Leavitt — a woman who made significant contributions to the field of astronomy yet wasn’t recognized in her lifetime — from March 24 to April 2.
The play is set in America in the early 1900s, beginning with Leavitt’s decision to take a job at the Harvard University Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Marjie Scott, Department of Fine Arts chair and the play’s director, said the department chose to perform “Silent Sky,” in part, due to the lesser-known nature of Leavitt and her discoveries.
“We hear a lot about Edwin Hubble and Galileo and Isaac Newton and the men from the math and science world, but we don’t hear a lot about the women, specifically in astronomy,” said Scott. “It was important to me to highlight the life of this woman, Henrietta Leavitt, who was a scientist and made major contributions to astronomy that helped other astronomers figure out actually how vast our universe is.”
By charting Cepheids, or groups of stars, Leavitt measured stars brightness in order to estimate their distance from earth, a process now referred to as period-luminosity relation. Her method, essentially a way to measure the universe that didn’t exist before, led to our current understanding that there are billions of galaxies beyond the Milky Way.
Olivia Pertuso, a graduate student who is performing the role of Leavitt in the play, said she researched the astronomer’s work and personal life in order to better understand who she was, which gave her an even greater respect for her character.
“She was just so involved in her community, not only at Harvard, but with her family, and she was just really a well-balanced woman,” said Pertuso.
“Silent Sky” revolves around a small cast which also consists of the characters Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Fleming, real women who worked at the Harvard Observatory alongside Leavitt. Under the instruction of a renowned male astronomer, the “women computers,” as they were referred to, charted the stars and assisted with research but were not encouraged to develop their own theories.
The play reveals pieces of Leavitt’s life — including a trip to her family home in Wisconsin and an ocean liner excursion — up until her early death from stomach cancer in 1921. Scott said audiences can expect to be moved by the performance.
“I think this play touches me every time I see it, and I’ve seen it so many times in rehearsal,” said Scott. “I still laugh and I still cry and I still react in this visceral way to it because it’s such an incredible thing that she did, what she was up against and still managed to do.”
Concepts of the universe and night sky are brought to life through lighting and set design in the play and make up a big part of the performance, said Scott.
“It’s a lot of fun because we’re playing with the passage of time, we’re playing with the night sky, playing with what these women were seeing on the plates that they studied. They were looking at these glass plates that depicted photographic images taken by a telescope,” said Scott.
The show will also be accompanied by original piano music that was written specifically for the performance.
While “Silent Sky” features a historic tale, the idea of diversifying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is very much a part of national conversations today, especially at the collegiate level. Recent films like the 2017 production Hidden Figures shed light on the experiences of three African American women behind an important NASA space mission.
Scott said while women are still underrepresented in STEM, putting on a play like “Silent Sky” helps reveal how far women have come, yet also serves as a reminder of the work that still needs to be done in order to achieve gender equality.
“I think honoring and recognizing the women that were left out of the history books is one more step that we can make to contribute to awareness of women in STEM,” said Scott. “They’ve always been there, they just haven’t really been talked about and honored the way that they should have been.”
Lead actress Pertuso agreed, and said she hopes everyone walks away inspired by Leavitt’s story. The department will host special performances for local middle and high school students as well as the Sul Ross Women’s Conference taking place this month in conjunction with Women’s History Month.
“Silent Sky” runs weekends from March 24 to April 2 in the Marshall Auditorium, located in the Morelock Academic Building. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for children 12 and under and seniors 65 and over, and free for veterans and active military. “Silent Sky” is appropriate for all audiences.
To purchase tickets, visit www.bit.ly/sulross-theatre. For questions contact [email protected] or call 432-837-8218.