Historically, there have been a lot of unsung women pioneers in different fields, women whose stories are only getting told decades and even a century after their contributions–The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) who served as pilots for the US Air Force in WWII, African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson who made significant contributions in the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA, and now Henrietta Leavitt, a bright scientist who has made significant contributions in the field of astronomy more than a century ago.
Joy Virata, who currently serves as REP’s Artistic Director, directs Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky as her first straight play in 20 years. In her cast is a group of veteran theater actors who will bring this underdog story to fruition– Cathy Azanza-Dy plays Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Caisa Borromeo plays her sister Margaret Leavitt, Shiela Francisco and Naths Everett play fellow scientists Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming respectively, and Topper Fabregas plays Henrietta Leavitt’s love interest Peter Shaw.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt, along with a group of female scientists, worked as human computers in the Harvard Observatory College. In spite of being forbidden to use the observatory’s telescope because of her gender, Leavitt still managed to make astonishing discoveries in the field of astronomy as she mapped out the distance between the stars, the earth, and the other galaxies, paving the way for popular male astronomers like Edwin Hubble to succeed in their research.
“It’s very unfortunate that not a lot of material exists,”, said Cathy Azanza-Dy when asked how she researched and prepared for her role. “But I read online and I also tried to find books about her. I tried to also read about other scientists like Einstein, how they approach life, and really the main thread that I’m finding is a zest and curiosity for life.”
“It’s imagining that you are a small part of something and you know there’s something out there that’s bigger and that fuels their entire life. And it’s so important for not just girls, but for women and men too, this desire to keep exploring, because that’s the only way you’ll make yourself better.” says Azanza-Dy. “It’s nice to play somebody who is so connected to that in herself that she wants to ask the questions. It’s good to ask the questions. The questions may not find you the answers, but they will lead you to places that you never thought you could go. And in the end, that’s going to make your life amazing.”
She added, “She didn’t set out to do this. I think the only thing she had in her mind was, I want a chance. I want to ask questions. I want to be in a place where I can ask these questions. And she happened to discover this new law. So, I feel very fortunate to have to live that everyday.”
Why is it important to tell this story today? “One, is it’s a beautiful expression of that kind of spirit that’s in everybody that wants to find out answers on why you exist, why your life matters.” says Azanza-Dy. “It’s such a timely story because a lot of the struggles of the women back then, you still feel it up to now. There are still a lot of barriers for women and we still have to break through so many things, but it’s slowly happening. The conversation is happening now.”
Azanza-Dy continues, “There’s also a beautiful conversation between science and religion, math and music, all these different parts of life that come together and it just hits you. It just kind of speaks to your heart and your mind. That’s why we love telling it.”
Director Joy Virata tells us that the play has a lot of things to say, “Women can do anything they want, if they have a passion for it. That’s another thing. It’s the passion. And the scientific insights that it brings. It spurs your inquisitiveness about the stars, about astronomy.” She adds, “I think it’s a good chance to open people’s eyes about astronomy.”
Caisa Borromeo, who plays Henrietta’s religious, family-oriented sister Margaret Leavitt, adds, “It’s very women empowering. I think what I love about it, which is something that we were discovering as we were rehearsing, is we see how important it is for women to support each other. I mean one thing is you have the sister storyline, Margaret and Henrietta, and they have two very different values. It’s that whole opposition between science and religion. But they love each other. They’re sisters. They support each other no matter what. Even if Margaret doesn’t want that kind of life and that’s not the life she believes in, she supports Henrietta in every way. She respects that kind of way of living.”
She also explains how this seemed to impact the workplace. “And though I love the relationship of Henrietta and her female scientists Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, based on how the script was written and the scenes, you get an idea of what it must have been like before Henrietta came into the picture in Harvard and what change she did, what impact she had for both Annie and Williamina. She made a change and she went for what she wanted and she became the woman who discovered how to measure the galaxies. I guess that motivated and inspired women to do what they want to do as well and that is women support. And I think that’s what is so important. It’s so timely and perfect with the #MeToo movement. And I guess that’s something that needs to be reminded, that women to stand up for each other. Not that they don’t but it’s just a nice reminder.”
“ I love that the play has so many themes. It has sisters, it has dreams and following your dreams, it has feminism, it has romance, it has everything.”
Silent Sky will be running from March 2-25, 2018 at the Onstage Theater of Greenbelt 1.
Here’s a glimpse of what you can expect from the show.
*The set shown in the video is not yet the show’s actual set.