In her new thought-provoking piece “My Lord, what a night” Deborah Brevoort finds a fun way to highlight how much race relations have progressed in our country and how little has changed over the decades.
The play, which premiered Friday at the Florida Studio Theater in a continuous world premiere via the National New Play Network, is inspired by an actual event. It begins one night in 1937 when singer Marian Anderson was denied accommodation at a white-only hotel in Princeton, New Jersey, and was offered accommodation at the home of the physicist and civil rights activist. Albert Einstein.
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From there, Brevoort interweaves the different approaches black Americans and Jews took to be treated fairly and equitably in an era of apartheid and as Nazi Germany exterminated millions of people in gas chambers.
The play becomes an engaging battle between those who are eager to take action and others who believe that trying to fit into mainstream society will bring about change. Brevoort makes history relevant to our contemporary debates.
Anderson was a highly paid superstar singer who hoped her voice could lead to change. She did not believe in speaking out against discriminatory practices.
Einstein was not afraid to speak up, and in a cheerful and encouraging way, he urges Anderson to take a stand. He obtained the support of Mary Church Terrell, founder of the National Association of Colored Women.
Einstein’s outspokenness is a problem for his boss, Abraham Flexner, the Jewish founder of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, who helped several prominent Jews flee Germany. But Flexner doesn’t want to create waves because it might offend its donors. He is also a little blind to the racism around him.
Lines cross and some changes develop over the play’s two years, leading to Anderson’s decision to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow him to perform. sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, CC
It’s a play that can generate heated debate, although some of its impact is mitigated in director Kate Alexander’s production by performances that aren’t always believable or effortlessly capture the style of more formal era of Brevoort’s screenplay. The actors didn’t seem quite in tune with each other on opening night.
As charming and cuddly as David Edwards can play a naughty Einstein with a singing German accent, he’s embarrassed by a distracting wig that appears to have been thrown over the top of his head. From the first glance, I found it hard to take him seriously no matter how important his words were. Even though she wears a graying wig to play Terrell, Nehassaiu deGannes, who appeared in the 2018 production of “Other People’s Money,” looks far too young to play a 70-year-old woman. She always brings quiet strength to a role that reminds us of this important civil rights and suffrage activist.
As Anderson, Thursday Farrar conveys the royalty of a star with the nervousness of someone who has both been abused in her life and feels trapped by the debate swirling around her. She also sings the spiritual “My Lord, what a morning”, with power and conviction.
As a Flexner, Rod Brogan, last seen as a father in FST’s “American Son”, is convincing as a goofy business type trying to move forward without ruffling feathers, playing all around the place. ‘until he reaches his own breaking point.
The action takes place in Einstein’s disheveled office, beautifully designed by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay to tell us a lot about this fascinating scientist. Lea Umberger’s costumes match the era and the characters.
While I struggled to fully engage with the characters, the ideas and issues that Brevoort brings up are important, and it was great to watch drama live on stage and in person again after so long.
Under new guidelines revealed hours before Friday’s opening by the Actor’s Equity Association, members of the FST public are not required to wear masks in the theater.
“My Lord, what a night”
By Deborah Brevoort. Directed by Kate Alexander. Revised July 2 to August 15 at the Florida Studio Theater Keating Theater, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Ticket information: 941-366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org