The first time Annie Cleveland read Silent Sky, the nickname for Harvard Observatory astronomy assistants jumped out: “Pickering’s Harem.” The women were named for observatory director Edward Charles Pickering, who hired them.
“Well, that would not fly these days, would it?” she says with a raised eyebrow and a laugh.
Cleveland has the lead role as early 20th century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt in Silent Sky, opening Wednesday at New Stage Theatre in Jackson after a Tuesday night preview. Coming of age in the 21st century brings certain expectations for Cleveland’s own career horizon, and “harem”-hood is not among them.
The central irony of Lauren Gunderson’s play about Leavitt is not lost on Silent Sky cast and crew. Leavitt discovered how to measure stellar distances, key in determining our place in the cosmos, at a time when a woman’s place in society was decidedly home-bound.
They were surprised — and a little relieved — at how relevant these issues still are, Cleveland says.
“This struggle of how do you pursue what you want? How do you pursue your career and also have a fulfilled family life and a fulfilled home life, and can you have both at the same time? That feels very prescient … and that’s exactly what they’re going through in the play,” she says.
“Henrietta, being told that this amazing work that she’s done can finally be used now that it’s in the hands of the men — of course, now, we’re like, ‘How can somebody say that to a person?’ But, that was status quo, then,” says Kerri Courtney Sanders, who plays Margaret, Henrietta’s sister, who chooses the more traditional home and family path.
The cast of characters in Silent Sky also includes real-life female astronomers Annie Cannon (played by Wendy Miklovic) and Williamina Fleming (played by Jo Ann Robinson) and the fictional coworker Peter Shaw (played by Evan McCarley).
The true story at the heart of Silent Sky is one they hope will reach and inspire young women and schoolgirls. In addition to regular performances, New Stage has scheduled SchoolFest matinees Feb. 16 and Feb. 23.
Early female astronomers pursued knowledge in tedious after-hours work with little hope for recognition. Women weren’t encouraged to seek education as they went through puberty; it was feared they were too frail.
“That was what the smartest people at the time thought about women’s bodies and what they were able to handle, and that’s why these women … would work twice as hard,” Cleveland says — all day on math for the men, then staying late to pursue their own theories. They couldn’t even use the telescope, but charted the stars from photographic glass star plates.
“These women were able to make these incredible discoveries because they were willing to do whatever they had to do,” she says.
Silent Sky touches on the intersections of home and work, art and science, faith and science. New Stage artistic director Francine Thomas Reynolds says she also was drawn to the play’s rich characters.
“It’s everything that I love, and what I think that our audiences would love, because it’s based on a true story, it’s people overcoming odds to meet some accomplishment and it’s about discovery.
“Strong women and stories about real people who haven’t gotten recognition — I love that,” Reynolds says.
Much as the 2016 film Hidden Figures did for Space Race-era black female mathematicians at NASA, Silent Sky “gives them their due,” Reynolds says.
The close, complex relationship of the sisters in Silent Sky is a marvel, Sanders says, as they attempt to understand each other’s feelings about God, faith, family, home “and the measure of success — what does it look like? … for Henrietta, it’s work and for Margaret, it is family.”
Cleveland, too, lauds playwright Lauren Gunderson’s treatment of each character as creative and sympathetic.
“There’s not just two ways to be successful. … As there are many stars in the sky, there are many different ways to be a rich woman, a textured woman,” she says.
For Cleveland, 28 and single, and Sanders, 30 and married, the window into a century past leaves them grateful, “for how far we have come,” Sanders says, “not only with marriage and home life, but in the work place. I think that’s wonderful, but I think we all also realize we have a long way to go, and this is still a battle that’s being fought in certain ways and certain places.”
“Grateful,” Cleveland continues, “for all the women who … tried to do something with their lives and pursued their curiosities, and, as Henrietta says, insisted upon the exceptional and insisted upon themselves.
“Mostly, I just feel really inspired.”
Showtimes for Silent Sky are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and Feb. 20-24, and 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 25. Tickets, $30 adult and $25 seniors/students, are available at the New Stage Theatre box office, www.newstagetheatre.com and 601-948-3531.
Annie Cleveland is the daughter of Mississippi Today sports columnist Rick Cleveland.