First Light Festival

Susan Bernfield on Poppy Northcutt, Apollo 8, soundscapes, the swinging sixties, and SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY

Susan Bernfield

Susan Bernfield

This weekend, on Friday March 1 and Saturday March 2, the 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature two workshop performances of Susan Bernfield ’s sparkling new play SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY, a drama about Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first female engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control. SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY had its first public reading in January 2017 as part of that year’s First Light Festival. A child of the sixties herself, Susan has lots to say about Poppy.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY is your new play about Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first woman engineer who worked in Mission Control at NASA and who played a critical role in configuring flight trajectories for Apollo 8 and other Apollo missions. What prompted you to write this play?

Flipping through channels one night (so old fashioned!) I landed on an episode of the MAKERS documentary series that was about women in space.  Poppy Northcutt was in it, along with these awesome pictures of her during her time at NASA.  She helped Apollo 13 get down, but she sure wasn’t in the movie!   I’ve always been obsessed with the space program; I think most people who were little kids in the late ‘60s are.  My standing image, of course, was row after row of uniform-looking guys: the glasses, the white shirts, the pocket protectors.  Poppy – not just a woman but a young and super-fashionable woman – utterly disrupted that image for me.  Even consciously inhabiting a feminine stereotype, she still could break all the stereotypes at once.  I had this near-Robert-Wilson-style vision, a long line of identical guys with Poppy in her headset suddenly entering their line. The play has grown around that image. 

Poppy Northcutt at NASA (from MAKERS: Women in Space)

Poppy Northcutt at NASA (from MAKERS: Women in Space)

What kind of research did you do to prepare to write the play? There’s some serious math involved in calculating orbital trajectories. How deep a dive did you take into Northcutt’s work product?

Apollo 8 Lunar Orbital Plan

Apollo 8 Lunar Orbital Plan

Thanks for liking my math! It’s probably pretty surface-y, though I did read many (simple) articles about orbital mechanics, Fortran, early computers.  I didn’t understand much but I loved using the vocabulary, I find it delicious and oddly lyrical. Mainly, I dove into the organizational systems and work culture at Mission Control, which is central to the play and, as I discovered, a secret of NASA’s success. The NASA website has an incredible trove of oral histories with engineers, supervisors, employees, and I read dozens of them. Actually, first I watched on YouTube some really stylish films made to promote the Apollo program. Their look and sound has influenced the play a lot, but more importantly there was one that described what I took to be Poppy’s division, so I looked up the division chief featured in the film and read his oral history.  When he mentioned other people – I’d go read their oral histories, too, and so on, following a trail of names through these documents, occasionally hitting on a fact or anecdote that helped me piece things together. I also watched documentaries and read many sources on Apollo 8. There was so much I didn’t know about it, certainly how fast it was planned and prepped, and it has so much poetic value – the “saving” of 1968 on the cusp of a changing world, earthrise.  And the first thing I read was an oral history Poppy did for the Houston Public Library, it’s the source of the core ideas in the piece but had limited details, sending me on the goose chase described above.

Northcutt got a lot of press attention in 1968 and thereafter as the “lithesome blonde” who sported miniskirts even while she held her own among the nerdy NASA engineers. In later years, after earning a law degree, she actively worked with the National Organization for Women to defend women’s rights. Is it your sense that she was a feminist from day one or did her consciousness evolve on women’s issues?

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt at her terminal.

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt at her terminal.

She’s said that her time at NASA was her consciousness raising and the play tracks that evolution.  She didn’t want any woman to ever have to be the only woman again, so she got involved.  She was very honest about using what we’d now probably call her privilege. She figured she had a good income, she was prominent, she wasn’t going to be fired, so she could safely put herself out there for women for whom activism was risky, but who needed the progress the women’s movement promised.  I love that. 

In your script you include many specific references to artifacts of the time – chairs, computer screens, lamps. How important are these elements to establishing the context for the world Northcutt inhabited?

A visual excerpt from the script for SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY

A visual excerpt from the script for SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY

It’s a very visual play.  As I said, it started with an image, it repeats that image and builds in more.  I see just a few iconic items on stage, and I’ve tried to activate them: the swivel chairs, for example, produce a kind of dance.  In addition to establishing the world, for me these items are a clue to the theatricality, it’s a memory play and a non-naturalistic play, and picking a few iconic items and images lets me pull ideas into focus.  At some point I started inserting pictures of objects into the text on the page:  “it looks like this.” Having them right there inspired me, once I could see the chair or the lamp I could inhabit what was happening around it.  Then I decided I wanted EVERY reader to see them. It put me right in it, wouldn’t it be the same for others?  I had such a great time writing this play, I felt freer than I ever had before, so I just figured, why not, and I loved how it made my page come alive.  

Sound and music, especially jazz, play a significant role in the play. Will the workshop be doing anything special with sound?

Space and the ‘60s are both so sonically cool. The sounds, specifically integrated with the text, also assist the spare and iconic theatricality I’m looking for. It was amazing, and frankly just the right move, for the EST folks to invite me to include sound design in this workshop.  Sound designer Kate Marvin and I got together in September to play around with some of the bigger sound moments in the play (well, more than we expected to, once we got going we just wanted to have at more of ‘em!). We had such a great time. There’s a big dream of sound in this text, I just heard soundscape throughout when I was writing it, sometimes it’s something literal and existing, and sometimes in stage directions I tried to articulate the FEELING or the acceleration or emotional underpinning the sound should convey. What Kate came up with, the sounds we explored together and then she constructed into sequences, concurred with and often improved on what I’d been dreaming. There’s one spot where I’d tried to describe the feeling of a piece of music in words, and she showed up with the exact piece I’d been thinking about! Plus mainly we giggled. Including when we came in to play Linsay and Graeme what we’d been up to. And now, being in this workshop week with Kate’s work to play with and for the actors to respond to… it really is an essential element, it’s illuminating and is punctuating the play just as intended, and it’s just really exciting. 

Katherine Johnson (left), the "computer" portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the movie Hidden Figures.

Katherine Johnson (left), the "computer" portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the movie Hidden Figures.

In 2016 we had a cascade of books – and one noteworthy film – about women who worked on the ground in the space program: The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (in 2017 a popular and critically acclaimed film), and Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt. What do you think accounts for this sudden interest in these women behind the space program? If you’ve read any of these books, how do the stories told in them compare with Poppy Northcutt’s? If you saw it, what did you think of the movie Hidden Figures?

Wow, I didn’t know about those other books, both were published after I handed my play in last year!  I’m not surprised these stories have become popular, with so much interest in technology now I’m sure there’s curiosity from all possible angles.  I did see the movie, Hidden Figures, it’s so good, and I’m thrilled that it became, what, the number one movie in America several weeks running? 

Because she invented the math, as the movie says, Katherine Johnson came up a lot in my research. It was amazing to discover her. Poppy did many remarkable things, but hundreds of men at NASA had similar functions, and the play is about the experience of being alone in that crowd. Obviously, being African-American in Virginia adds an immeasurable layer of difficulty.  Poppy was a native Texan in Houston, she presented very assertively, and from what I could tell pretty much spoke her mind. Once she proved she could do the job there weren’t many outward obstacles; like in the movie, they needed all the smart people they could get. But she was always, in her words, a curiosity. I did all this fascinating research, but pulling a story out of it, trying to find the drama in some pretty subtle slights and pressures, was challenging, I was stumped for a while. Can she penetrate the men’s camaraderie? Seems like a small question, but in a work environment in which teamwork is the established mode of productivity, and the results are life and death, the stakes are pretty high.  Or I hope so!

Poppy Northcutt in a 1969 ad in Time Magazine for her contractor, TRW.

Poppy Northcutt in a 1969 ad in Time Magazine for her contractor, TRW.

Northcutt played a critical role in another Apollo mission, when an explosion aboard Apollo 13 forced the astronauts to abort the lunar landing and put their return in jeopardy. Can you explain what NASA called upon her to do?

She calculated new return-to-earth trajectories – among other things, the explosion put Apollo off course, so hundreds of thousands of new trajectories had to be run in order to get the astronauts home. 

In addition to EST/Sloan, you have developed and produced plays at New Harmony Project, People's Light & Theatre, Huntington Theatre Company, Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, The Lark, and many other venues. How does the play development process at EST/Sloan compare with or differ from these other organizations?

I’ve gotten so much out of every opportunity, but they were always for existing plays.  I usually make time for and incentivize writing myself, and it’s usually the last thing I get to with so much else going on. So this commission has meant a lot to me. A deadline! I took it very seriously, and I couldn’t believe how different that felt or how productive that made me. I worked more consistently than I ever have on a play, I planned my time out, I created task lists, I did all this research, I forced myself to keep going when it felt overwhelming or dead end. I sent it in at 3 pm on the deadline day we’d set and I was ridiculously pumped, so excited. It’s great to know Linsay and Graeme will read it, to have their feedback. They invited me to SPACE on Ryder Farm in the summer of 2016 to turn the first draft into a second one, so productive. After shepherding so many science plays, their advice is unique and specific. When I was stumped, Graeme said, your characters are working. Just let them do their work. And I did. And that’s how I figured it out.

Portions of this interview appeared previously on this blog as part of the 2017 First Light Festival.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 2 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year.  

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Andrea Lepcio on fixing the ozone hole, dangerous chemicals, climate change and WORLD AVOIDED

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On Tuesday, February 26, this year’s EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature a reading of Andrea Lepcio’s new play, WORLD AVOIDED, followed by a special panel discussion and reception. The title captures in two words the future environmentalists hope their efforts can deliver: a future different from the one we are destined to arrive at if we don’t change our behavior.

WORLD AVOIDED dramatizes what many consider the most successful global effort to change our future, the 1987 Montreal Protocol, in which, eventually, every country in the world agreed to a treaty that would protect the ozone layer by phasing out numerous substances responsible for ozone depletion. And the participants in the Montreal Protocol did not stop there: they kept trying to refine and improve their proposal over the next thirty years, climaxing with what John Kerry called the “monumental agreement” by 197 nations in Kigali, Rwanda in October, 2016 to cut back on the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and possibly “reduce the warming of the planet by half a degree centigrade.”

Joining Andrea for the post-reading discussion on Tuesday will be many of the individuals who contributed to the success of the Montreal Protocol, including Dr. Stephen O. Andersen, Dr. Suely Carvalho, Dr. David Fahey, and Durwood Zaelke.

 In advance, let’s hear more from Andrea about the background of the play.

 (Interview by Rich Kelley)

 On your website you note that WORLD AVOIDED is “based on [your] experiences attending Montreal Protocol international diplomatic meetings.” How many meetings did you attend and when did you decide that you had to write this play? 

Stephen Andersen (left) and Madhava Sarma at Montreal Protocol meeting 2002 where they launched their book,  Protecting the Ozone Layer .

Stephen Andersen (left) and Madhava Sarma at Montreal Protocol meeting 2002 where they launched their book, Protecting the Ozone Layer.

Steve Andersen, Director of Research for the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development and the former EPA official responsible for the Montreal Protocol, was my college professor and we have remained friends. He suggested that the Montreal Protocol would be a good topic for a play, emphasizing that it is the most successful climate change agreement. I began research and quickly concurred, though, at first, I was worried: where would I “find the conflict” since the history was about the world coming together and agreeing. Steve then invited me to come to the Meeting of the Parties. My first time was in July 2014. It was good that he didn’t warn me before I got there. Everyone was screaming at each other. They were in the middle of a huge fight and I got excited – there’s my conflict. I attended five meetings over two years. Most of that time the conflict got worse and I used to say, this is very bad for the climate but very good for the play. Even better for the play –and the climate – we reached a happy ending in Kigali in October 2016. I had finished the draft on that happy note – and then Trump got elected President – so I went back and added the election and his winning since he is now the greatest threat to climate in the world.

WORLD AVOIDED had its first public reading in February 2017, as part of that year’s First Light Festival. How has the play changed since?

The play has become shorter. After the 2017 reading, it was very clear that some material had to go. It was a little too much to ask an audience to absorb in one sitting. This was the most difficult part of the re-write for me. From conversations with Linsay Firman and Graeme Gillis at EST and other observers, I started to see what could go. They do instruct us to kill our darlings. As it turned out, I needed to trim the part of the story I had personally witnessed and trust that the more interesting material was the deeper history. Pages fell away and the story focused.

Besides attending the meetings, what other research did you do to write WORLD AVOIDED? How many of the characters you portray did you get a chance to meet and interview?

I read many books on the Montreal Protocol. Steve Andersen has a good one that he wrote with Madhava Sarma, Protecting the Ozone Layer: The United Nations History (2002). And Richard E. Benedick, the U.S. negotiator for MP (and also a character in the play), wrote his own account, Ozone Diplomacy: New Directions in Safeguarding the Planet (1998). There are also famous articles like the 1974 Nature journal paper by Mario Molina and Frank Sherwood Rowland – perhaps the most important article on climate change ever published – in which they describe how ultraviolet radiation breaks down chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the stratosphere and how the chlorine that gets released breaks down ozone (they won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work).

Participants at the Montreal Protocol meeting, Kigali, Rwanda, 2016. Playwright Andrea Lepcio is second from right.

Participants at the Montreal Protocol meeting, Kigali, Rwanda, 2016. Playwright Andrea Lepcio is second from right.

At the meetings, I got to meet, essentially, all of the living people. I am very disappointed I never got to meet Mostafa Tolba, who passed away in March 2016 at a very old age, nor Madhava Sarma, both of whom Steve adored and was mentored by. My now friends include Helen Walter-Terrinoni, Marco Gonzalez, Durwood Zaelke, Guus Velders, David Fahey, Paul Newman, Mack McFarland, and many more. There is always a very congenial atmosphere at the meetings. The first one I went to, Steve was greeted like a long lost relative. The next meeting I went to, I was greeted like a long lost relative. 

In 2005, Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the United Nations, hailed the Montreal Protocol as "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” What made this agreement so remarkable? 

Mostafa Tolba

Mostafa Tolba

This is true. I believe there are a few reasons. The first would be the magic of Mostafa Tolba. He led the original effort in a strategic, diplomatic, manipulative and brilliant manner that made the first agreement come together and increased the ambition for what could happen in 1990. Second, under United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) rules, all decisions are by consensus. I believe once consensus was reached in ‘87 and again in ‘90, the World learned this was possible and continued to reach for it in this setting. The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change also relies on consensus, but the delegates there have only agreed on relatively small steps. Third, success brings success. The Montreal Protocol took care of the ozone problem so fast. They went from “the sky is falling” to “we saved the earth” so quickly; that created pride that continued to feed achievements. It was even held over people’s heads when they resisted changes in 2016. There are people who believe the ozone problem was more viscerally palpable than the climate problem. With less ozone we were going to get skin cancer, cataracts. For me climate is just as visceral, but there are those who argue that the idea of getting warmer isn’t as immediate. I think storms like Sandy made it immediate, but then, not to people like Trump. 

Why do you think the Montreal Protocol succeeded where so many other international conferences failed? How important was it that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a “chemist by training”?

Graph showing impact of Montreal Protocol agreement on chlorine in the stratosphere

Graph showing impact of Montreal Protocol agreement on chlorine in the stratosphere

I have never attended a United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP). They meet annually. Durwood goes and members of his team. Steve doesn’t go. I’m not really sure what went wrong with those. Was there no one like Mostafa? Were there too many competing interests? With the Montreal Protocol (MP), there is always the balance of developed and developing countries. Again, it helped that Mostafa was Egyptian. Sometimes it is referred to as North versus South. I can only guess that tensions are higher and less resolved at COP. At MP I witnessed, specifically, the Gulf States trying to beat us up to get what they want. I think they are likely to be even more strident at COP and without the legacy of success which always distinguishes MP. With MP, success begot success. Maybe, with COP, failure begets failure. Paris 2015 was a step forward. Durwood says Marrakesh 2016 was a step back. I think Thatcher was amazing in 1990. Yes, because she understood the problem as a chemist and because she could call Bush and bully him.

Some 197 parties ratified the Montreal Protocol and WORLD AVOIDED dramatizes in a brisk, entertaining and lively fashion the negotiations that led to that 1987 agreement and the several attempts in the thirty years since to revise and improve it. This clearly involved a lot of judicious editing. How did you decide what to include and focus on? 

Graph showing decline of production of fluorocarbons through 2007

Graph showing decline of production of fluorocarbons through 2007

This is about the fifth draft of the play. I tried, for three drafts, to center the action on the current crisis and flash back in time to show the earlier successes. I was convinced that was how to write the play. Finally, brilliant Linsay Firman [Director of Play Development at EST] said, I think we might understand it better chronologically. I instantly knew she was right – even though it had never occurred to me!  I had been worried in the beginning that there would be a lack of drama, but of course, there was drama at every turn. In chronological order the audience understands the build and evolution better. At least I hope they do. There was a huge amount of editing. There are so many chemicals and stories about how they were phased out. I have so many deleted scenes. I could have written a play entirely about 1987-1990. There was a specific chemical, for example, methyl bromide, which is ozone depleting and important in agriculture that was very difficult to phase out. A friend of Steve’s took a machete to the head over this one. It kind of needs its own play. There were people I couldn’t really serve in the space I had.  Madhava Sarma, head of the Montreal Protocol Secretariat, for example.

The play has some clear heroes – scientists Frank Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina for their discoveries, researcher and environmental protection advocate Stephen O. Andersen and Durwood Zaelke for their persistence – am I missing anyone? They drive the action that spans almost fifty years. How do you envision their characters and motivations changing over that time?

Frank Rowland and Mario Molina in their lab, 1975

Frank Rowland and Mario Molina in their lab, 1975

In a play, characters are supposed to change. In many ways, I knew that Steve and Durwood only got older as opposed to really changed, but I found Steve getting more desperate and exasperated as the final win seemed in danger. I hope that is satisfying for the audience. Durwood is kind of a Zenlike figure who keeps his emotions very close to his vest. Once I came out of a particularly contentious meeting looking very grumpy. Durwood said “Fix your face.” And I understood in that moment, that was how he did it. He is always externally calm. I learned a big lesson from him that day. What’s important to me is that the play captures the tension of feeling – like they and the world are running out of time. There are many other heroes who get much less stage time. Researcher Guus Velders was named one of Nature’s “Ten People Who Mattered in 2016” for his work on HFCs.

Some of the antagonists in the play – perhaps we shouldn’t name names – seem rather comically hapless. Is what you have them say actually from conference transcripts?   

Yes, we could say there is a villain in the play and I pushed his text for fun. A scientist who just seemed to always be working against the HFC amendment. But he was still given a platform to share his views. Some of the text is exact transcript – for instance, much of what we hear from the Saudis, but not all. In some cases I did expand the text to make a point. Spoke what was subtext, that kind of thing. It was so wonderful to hear, after the Kigali amendment passed, the Saudi delegate saying, after years being on the other side, how grateful and happy he was that we had reached this agreement. 

To understand the stakes in the play the audience will have to understand something about chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and hydrofluoroelefins (HFOs). Do you have any special approach to doing this? 

When the play was going back and forth in time, I think it was nearly impossible to understand, to be honest. And it took me a long time to see that. I kept trying to make it clearer in that structure. Now that the story is told in chronological order, it will be easier, because we learn about each gas or chemical as it is in use and at issue and then resolved. The 1987 protocol, for instance, focused on replacing CFCs, which depleted the ozone layer, with HCFCs, which did not but still increased global warming.  Then in 2007, the goal was to replace HCFCs with HFCs but in 2009 scientists discovered a problem with HFCs . . . but we shall see once we have an audience.  

The play often has text projected in “square brackets” for discussion. Can you explain how the Montreal Protocol meetings used “square brackets” to address areas of disagreement?

Once text is proposed it is typed up and projected so everyone can see the proposed text. Bear in mind there are translators, but text is always typed in English. When someone has an amendment, that is typed in square brackets so square brackets phrases are added and subtracted during the debate until everything is agreed and the square brackets are eliminated.  There is an environmental group at the College where I teach called Earth in Brackets.

Graph of urban vs rural population 1950-2030

Graph of urban vs rural population 1950-2030

We now know that since 2009, for the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas. How has that changed the concerns of environmental scientists?

It put the pressure on. In urban settings, people have more income and demand air conditioning, mobile air conditioning, use more electricity, etc. It’s the air conditioners that use the fluorocarbons – CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs.

UNEP Executive Director Mostafa Tolba frequently tells Andersen “talk less, listen more” which echoes Aaron Burr’s advice to Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton. Did Mostafa get this from Burr or did Lin-Manuel Miranda get this from Mostafa? Have you considered a rap version of WORLD AVOIDED?

I am totally doing a Lin-Manuel reference on purpose for fun. So let’s credit Lin-Manuel. But Steve says he learned everything about diplomacy from Mostafa.

Is there anything you discovered by attending the Montreal Protocol meetings that you were too discreet to include in the play?

Ha! I don’t think so. I mostly wish I could put 400 people on stage. The experience of being there with everyone is so profound. To go out to get some air and spend time with a man from Jordan who is saying how nice the weather is in Rwanda. Each of these moments are so precious to me. 

Have you written other plays related to science?

I wrote a screenplay about a kid whose mother gets breast cancer who becomes obsessed with cell biology. That won a Sloan award at grad school at Carnegie Mellon. And I’ve written a ton about breast cancer. I am now working on a site-specific piece for Acadia National Park where I am a writer in residence. And I am working on a play about how Exxon went from leading climate change research to denying it was happening, all in the interest of profits. 

Having lived with the concerns of this play for so long, I suspect you are especially sensitive to changes in the environment. Do you have any observations you’d like to share?

Living in Maine, I am more and more conscious of how visible the changes to climate are right in front of my eyes. There are fewer songbirds. Our summers are near drought, and our winters have extreme precipitation. For the first time this year, pools of water collected on my lawn; this never happened a couple of years ago. In the piece I am working on for Acadia, I want to emphasize to people that they must look, assess, remember changes, and act. We are running out of time. 

Portions of this interview appeared previously on this blog as part of the 2017 First Light Festival.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year.  

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Dominic Taylor on African American scientists in the 1920s, gender and power dynamics, class, experimental risks, and THE BIOLOGY OF THE SURFACE

Dominic Taylor

Dominic Taylor

On Tuesday, February 19, as part of the 2019 First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project is presenting the first public reading of THE BIOLOGY OF THE SURFACE by Dominic Taylor. The play dramatizes the working relationship -- and romance – over some ten years in the 1920s and 1930s between the pioneering African American biologist Ernest Everett Just and one of his students, Roger Arliner Young, who went on to become the first African American women to earn a doctorate in zoology. The playwright uses this relationship to mine rich themes about eugenics and racism in the sciences during that time, power dynamics in academia and scientific publishing, the design of experiments, and the costly unknowns of some technology. But let’s hear more from the creator.  

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What moved you to write THE BIOLOGY OF THE SURFACE?

I knew something about Ernest Everett Just but not a lot. I knew that he was the first African American graduate of Dartmouth College. I knew that he was a major thinker in biology at the beginning of the twentieth century. As I researched him, I learned that he worked for a long time with a graduate assistant Roger Arliner Young. When I discovered that Roger Young was a woman, I become more intrigued, especially in that she is not mentioned in his seminal text The Biology of the Cell Surface.

Why this play? Why now?

Ernest Everett Just in his lab at Howard University

Ernest Everett Just in his lab at Howard University

There are a few reasons. The first has to do with class. Class in the African American community is never examined. People often assume that there is no way that a black woman could earn a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1930s. Young did. The nature of the African American poor or working-class woman and man is replete in many works. This play allowed me to address many questions: class, gender, mentor-mentee relationships, and academic life. These areas are seldom examined in any African American context.

What research did you do to write your play?

Primarily, I read texts. Black Apollo of Science, by Kenneth Manning, is the primary biography of Just. One of the things I noticed was that it did not examine the collaborative nature of scientific study. This is where I met Roger Young. How could this young woman be a research assistant for seven years prior to the publishing of The Biology of the Cell Surface but not be mentioned in the book at all? I have a background in the sciences. My undergraduate degree is in engineering, not biology, but I think it helped my understanding of the play. I adopted a different type of three-act structure: a hypothesis, an experiment and then data analysis.  

The action of the play takes place at Howard University in D.C. and at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts in the twenties and thirties. What should the audience know about the environment in which Just and Young were doing research at that time?

Roger Arliner Young (c. 1927-1929)

Roger Arliner Young (c. 1927-1929)

There are so many things, but perhaps the most significant might be how different African American life was in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1920s was a period when with the end of WWI and the Great Migration, black life changed. It was the time of the Harlem Renaissance and the birth of the work of Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. It was also a time when Ida B. Wells was writing every day about the lynching of African Americans. Lynching was legal into the 1940s. Additionally, the 1930s was a time when after the Great Depression, the limited economic gains of African Americans had been pushed back.

In the play one matter of contention between Just and Young is how much she contributed to his most famous work, The Biology of the Cell Surface (1939). Is there evidence he failed to acknowledge her contribution?

This is a fact. There is no mention of this woman in anything referencing this book. Not in a foreword or an acknowledgement page. There is no indication of her contribution anywhere. Additionally, she was removed from Howard University’s faculty just before the book was published. The reasoning offered in Black Apollo of Science was that Just wanted to stand alone alongside other singular scientists. Percy Julian and Charles Drew on Howard’s faculty are also notable in this regard, but this was true of all scientists at the time. Who was Thomas Alva Edison’s assistant or Alexander Graham Bell’s? Scientists at the time believed they must stand alone as singular titans of brilliance.

Your play has three sections that take place in 1926, 1929 and 1936. Quite a lot has changed between the two characters between 1929 and 1936. Young has failed her dissertation defense with Just’s mentor, Frank R. Lillie, at the University of Chicago. Her eyesight has become damaged from her work with ultraviolet radiation in Just’s experiments. Just is about to get married for the second time, to a white German woman, and there is evidence that at this point both have been actively engaged in sabotaging the other’s career. Is it likely such a scene ever happened? How did everything go so wrong?

Black Apollo cover.jpg

One of the fun things about research is putting puzzle pieces together. Reading about Young, (a good text to start was Black Women Scientists in the United States by Wini Warren) I learned that her vision did deteriorate over time. The ultraviolet lamps she used for Just’s experiments were unsafe. The knowledge of light therapy and early X-ray technology was limited and no one knew the complete damage. Black Apollo of Science also tells us that Just wanted to get his new would-be-wife a job at Howard. Howard’s president, Mordecai Johnson, was appalled at what he heard about the behavior of both Just and another scientist Percy Julian while they were in Europe. Both men were married but engaged in inappropriate behavior abroad. Johnson needed to rein in this behavior.

Stephen Jay Gould has written about his obsession with the photo of Just at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, where Just worked for some twenty summers. Gould describes the photo: “The man it depicted was singularly handsome, with a pervasive look of sadness that touched me across half a century.” He goes on to characterize Just as “fascinating, complex, and ambiguous,” “If he had fit the mold of an acceptable black scientist, he might have survived in the hypocritical world of white liberalism in his time. A man like George Washington Carver, who upheld Booker T. Washington’s doctrine of slow and humble self-help for blacks, who dressed in his agricultural work clothes, and who spent his life in the practical task of helping black farmers find more uses for peanuts, was paraded as a paragon of proper black science. But Just preferred fancy suits, good wines, classical music, and women of all colors.” What’s your take on Just?

Gould is accurate in how I saw Just as well. Just did not want to be constrained by teaching only at Howard. He applied for positions at Brown and Dartmouth and was rejected by both. He wrote about wanting to teach at a major research institution. At the time this was a euphemism for a white institution. Gould’s description of him not willing to sublimate himself is apt. In my reading of him, he was a very complex modern man, and I hope I show that complexity in the play.

What do you want the audience to take away from THE BIOLOGY OF THE SURFACE?

Percy Julian in his chemistry lab at Howard University

Percy Julian in his chemistry lab at Howard University

First, I want them to meet these two titans of science. Second, I want them to consider how they should have interacted. On the surface, a brilliant black man and a brilliant black woman should have helped each other achieve degrees of success. The fact that each had success in his and her own right is good to know, but the success could have been exponential. How did race or pressure around race, science and the academy hinder this understanding? I also want the audience to consider the mentor/mentee relationship. How it operated on and beneath the surface.

Just was ahead of his time in viewing the organisms he studied as part of an ecosystem and that the cell surface represented an organizational complexity that could not be reduced to the sum of its parts. Do you see a connection between Just’s “holistic” ideas and the way he behaves in his relationship with Young?

I think he could not see the relationship completely. He had a blind spot. A bad analogy might be Louis CK championing women comedians, yet engaging in behavior that was inappropriate. If he could have seen her contribution as part of his ecosystem, he could have helped her in a series of career ways that he chose not to do. The personal relationship presented in the play is speculative, but we know he did not buoy her career and he could have. He was looking at a tree and not the complete ecosystem.

Young’s work with Just impaired her vision for the rest of her life. When she failed her defense of her PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago, Frank Lillie (who had been Just’s mentor) would no longer work with her and Just effectively abandoned her and eventually got her fired from Howard. Young never married. After she left Howard, Young struggled to find work and later checked herself into a mental institution and died impoverished. In this #MeToo era, can’t the case be made that Just was a monster who used and destroyed his mentee Young?

Not necessarily. After being fired from Howard, Young went on to get her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania (1940). She taught at North Carolina College for Negroes in the 1940s. In 1944 she helped the NAACP register voters. Her activism got her blacklisted from teaching in North Carolina. She had to go to Jackson State in Mississippi to teach after that. She committed herself in 1962, more than 20 years after Just died. After leaving the mental institution, she went on to teach at Shaw University in Louisiana.

The fact that she died in poverty was an outgrowth of her bad health and a series of additional events in her life that I do not dramatize.

I guess that the case could be made that Just was a monster, but I am hoping that the audience leaves with a more complex view. We knew so little about the effects of UV light in the 1930s.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

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Julie McKee on New Zealand during WWII, Maori culture, women scientists, and THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED

Julie McKee

Julie McKee

This year the EST/Sloan First Light Festival is featuring THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED by Julie McKee as a satellite event at HB Playwrights Theatre, a co-production of Collider Theater and HB Studio. Performances of the production directed by Jean Randich began February 2 and run through February 16. Tickets are free and can be reserved here. Set in New Zealand in 1941, the play follows the quest of botanist Louise MacGregor and her sixteen-year-old assistant to find Pterocladia Lucida, a species of seaweed critical to the war effort. The playwright explains . . .
(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What inspired you to write THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED?

I have a book called The Book of New Zealand Women: Ko Kui Ma Te Kaupapa and in it there is a photo taken in 1935 of Lucy B. Moore, a prominent scientist and botanist wearing boys’ shorts. Among her many achievements, she was tasked during the Second World War, to travel around parts of the NZ coast in search of Pterocladia Lucida, a seaweed needed for biomedical research. In order to succeed, she needed support from the children of the native schools of the East Coast. I thought, what an adventure that must have been.

What kind of research did you do to write your play?

Lucy B. Moore (center) with fellow botanists Harry Howard Barton Allan (left) and G. F. Papenfuss (right) in Auckland, 1949.

Lucy B. Moore (center) with fellow botanists Harry Howard Barton Allan (left) and G. F. Papenfuss (right) in Auckland, 1949.

A ton. I found all my research about seaweed on the Internet. The history of New Zealand during WW2 was from film, documentary, books and the Internet. I grew up in New Zealand, so the Pakeha culture is second nature. Since my dad served in the Pacific, I've always been fascinated with that era. Growing up in New Zealand when I did, most of us Pakeha were horribly ignorant of the Māori experience and culture. I did a lot of homework. As Dr. Ella Henry, one of our Māori advisers put it, "I thought the dialogue accurately reflected the casual racism about Māori issues and people for the era." She and Rangimoana Taylor, actor/director and storyteller, also pointed me in the right direction regarding Māori specific matters and pronunciation. They were very helpful and I am grateful for their enthusiastic support. While on holiday in New Zealand, I followed in Lucy's footsteps from Te Kaha to Gisborne.  Of course, I was in a car, stayed in motels along the way, and conducted interviews about the history of the area when I could. She did it on foot, or in a horse-drawn cream cart and the occasional service car.  It's a remote area even today but a gorgeous trek. The coastline is stunning. 

The route from Te Kaha to Gisborne.

The route from Te Kaha to Gisborne.

Why did you decide to fictionalize Moore as your character Louise MacGregor?

I fictionalized her private life as there was little I could find on her personal life.  The adventures along the way are also fictionalized; however, the purpose of the mission is actual.

Moore frequently worked with the botanical illustrator, Nancy Adams, who began working for New Zealand’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (D.S.I.R.) in 1942 at the age of 16, much like Louise’s assistant, May Smith. How much of Smith is based on Adams?

Botanical artist Nancy Adams at work

Botanical artist Nancy Adams at work

Nancy Adams did indeed accompany Lucy on this wartime journey at 16, as does May. She was a talented botanical artist and worked for the D.S.I.R. as does May. But I was not able to find much about Nancy's personal life or her relationship to Lucy except that they remained lifelong friends and frequently worked together after this mission. Fact and fiction intertwine. 

The play is quite steeped in Māori culture. Was this also part of Lucy Moore’s story?

The majority of the play takes place in a predominantly Māori area. The success of the mission depended upon the participation of the local population. I couldn't tell the story without their presence.

How did THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED became a satellite event of the EST/Sloan First Light Festival with numerous performances at HB Studio?

The play began as an EST/Sloan Project Commission.  Then as the play developed through the EST Playwright Unit and the HB Rehearsal Lab Project, ten performances were offered via Edith Meeks and the HB Performance Lab, directed by Jean Randich, and funded in part by Collider Theater and the EST/Sloan Project. It’s been such an opportunity. We took three short weeks to test it on its feet with a wonderful and dedicated group of artists led by the gifted Jean Randich and assisted by stage manager extraordinaire Colton Robertson. So "hold on to your hats" cries Archie as he hurtles downhill with no brakes.  

Playwrights who work on science-themed plays often find that their research turns up things both surprising and delightful that they are pleased to include in their plays. Did that happen for you in researching THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED?

Pterocladia Lucida  , the red seaweed used for making agar.

Pterocladia Lucida , the red seaweed used for making agar.

I was surprised to find that seaweed is the food source of the future, easily farmed, easily sustained, as long as the oceans remain healthy.  It was the first species to have sex. The etymology of the Butterfly Pea. Many things!

What do you want the audience to take away from THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED?

What connected me to writing this story were the enormous adjustments and sacrifices that ordinary women make during the extraordinary times of war.  How shame and repression of grief brought on by society can warp a person's character and the choices they make. 

Other plays you’ve written have been part of the EST/Sloan First Light Festival. What was Fringe Benefits about?

Fringe Benefits is about a Reno showgirl who is approaching a certain age, the effects of gravity, and her efforts to understand the science behind it.

You also teach playwriting. What do playwrights need to know about how to write a good science-themed play? 

Develop your characters and their personal journey too, but then again, it depends on the kind of play you're writing.

School girls from Raukōkore Native School, Bay of Plenty, hanging out agar seaweed to dry in 1941.

School girls from Raukōkore Native School, Bay of Plenty, hanging out agar seaweed to dry in 1941.

What’s next for Julie McKee?

Will Sacrifice. New York 1996.  A mature couple's search for home, and each other during the real estate boom in the lower Catskill Mountains.  A comedy.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

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Michael Walek on research surprises, mythologizing, camping, and HAVE YOU MET JANE GOODALL & HER MOTHER

Michael Walek

Michael Walek

On Tuesday, February 5, as part of the 2019 First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project is presenting the first public reading of HAVE YOU MET JANE GOODALL & HER MOTHER by Michael Walek. The play dramatizes the first months of twenty-six-year-old Jane Goodall’s first expedition to study chimpanzees in Africa. But why did she bring her mother? To learn why, let’s hear from the playwright: 

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What prompted you to write HAVE YOU MET JANE GOODALL & HER MOTHER?

When I was growing up, my mom loved Jane Goodall. We had her books in the house, and I thought I knew her story. A few years ago, I learned that when the Tanzanian government allowed Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees, they required she bring a chaperone, so she brought her mother. The idea of a scientist bringing her mother on her first expedition sounded like a play I wanted to write. 

Jane Goodall and her mother Margaret “Vanne” Myfanwe Joseph in camp (Photo: Hugo Van Lawick, National Geographic Society)

Jane Goodall and her mother Margaret “Vanne” Myfanwe Joseph in camp (Photo: Hugo Van Lawick, National Geographic Society)

What research did you do to write your play?

Tons of research. I read everything I could get my hands on from her journals to her family’s letters. 

Your play creates vignettes that dramatize the first months Jane Goodall spends with her mother leading her first expedition to study chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1960. How did you figure out what they sounded like? Did you work with her field notes?

Luckily, many of Jane and Vanne’s letters from that time were published, so it was easy to get a sense of their writing style, words they liked, nicknames they used. I found them to be utterly charming. 

Is the relationship you dramatize between Jane and her mother your invention or based on something Jane wrote?  They are often quite funny. Is that from your imagination or based on your research?

Before I did my research, I assumed that any child living in a tent with her parent for five months would find it a stressful situation, only to discover that Jane and Vanne adored each other and never really fought. Suddenly, I had to write a play about two funny, kind people who encouraged and supported each other. 

Jane Goodall grooming David Greybeard, the first chimp to lose his fear of her.

Jane Goodall grooming David Greybeard, the first chimp to lose his fear of her.

It’s always seemed a bit preposterous that the famed anthropologist Louis Leakey would choose a secretary with no academic background or field experience to lead an expedition into the thick mountainous terrain the chimpanzees inhabited. And be able to get funding for her. Why do you think he chose Jane?

Well, she wasn’t his first choice. Jane only found this out years later, but Leakey tried to get another scientist to go into the field, but she declined. I think a lot has been made out that she was “just a secretary.” She went on a human fossil dig with Leakey and worked with him at his museum in Kenya. She was a bit more qualified, but it makes a better story if she’s this random typist. 

Have you ever gone camping for an extended time? Spent any time observing nature? Done field research?

I absolutely hate camping, and the outdoors, which I realize makes it hysterical I wrote this play. 

Young Jane Goodall with Jubilee

Young Jane Goodall with Jubilee

Much has been made of how Jubilee, a plush toy chimpanzee Jane was given as a child, may have determined her career. Were you ever given something as a child that shaped your life?

Again, I think this is some hindsight mythologizing. Jane would’ve studied birds if it was the assignment. It just happened to be chimpanzees.  

You’ve been a member of EST’s Youngblood collective. How has that influenced your playwriting?

One of the best things about Youngblood is how radically different everyone’s writing is. I think Youngblood pushed me to write more like myself. I am very lucky to have been part of the collective. 

Have you written other plays about science?

Yes. I wrote numerous plays for the Youngblood Science brunch and they were always rejected. 

When did you first know you were a playwright?

My high school had a play contest my senior year. I wrote a play, and it won. I wasn’t invited to rehearsals, so I just showed up one night and saw my play. There was a twist ending, and the audience gasped. I was completely hooked. 

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

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Marc Acito on Wernher von Braun, Alabama in the sixties, Wagner, surrealism, the ethics and dreams of America’s Apollo program, and THE SPACE RACE

Marc Acito

Marc Acito

On Thursday, January 31, as part of this year’s First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project will host a public reading of THE SPACE RACE: An American Dream by Marc Acito.  THE SPACE RACE had its first reading during last year’s First Light Festival when it had the title MAN IN THE MOON. The play opens in 1967 when 55-year-old German émigré rocket scientist Wernher von Braun is on the verge of realizing his lifelong dream of putting a man on the moon. For the past seventeen years he has been leading the development of American rocket technology in Huntsville, Alabama, first with the Army, then, in 1960, as NASA’s first director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center there . . . but this makes it sound like a straightforward story and THE SPACE RACE is anything but that. So let’s hear the playwright’s take.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What inspired you to write THE SPACE RACE?

In order to “win” the arms race, the U.S. military recruited Nazi war criminals and enabled them to escape justice. Our rockets to the moon were fueled with the blood of thousands. Those victims deserve justice. And the corruption of American exceptionalism demands examination.

Why this play? Why now?

Space Race logo.jpeg

With the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing this year, I expect to see a lot of misinformation from parties with competing agendas. Polls show that 7% of Americans don’t believe we landed on the moon, along with 40% of Russians and 52% of Britons. The future of democracy depends on bringing the truth to light, particularly when the veracity of verifiable information suffers daily assaults.

THE SPACE RACE had its first public reading last February as part of the 2018 First Light Festival when its title was Man in the Moon. Why the title change? What’s changed in the play? What were you aiming to do in the new version?

I chose the title Man in the Moon as a reference to Wernher von Braun, with the idea that the play was about this man who got us to the moon. But when I heard the play for the first time last year, I realized it was about much more than Von Braun. The title change reflects the widening lens.

The other big takeaway from last year’s reading was how the surreal aspects didn’t have the impact of the real. Getting those elements to register has been the bulk of my work.

Many historians claim that America could never have put a man on the moon without the vision, knowledge, and inventiveness of Wernher von Braun. Yet many also question how truthful he was in describing his involvement with the Nazi war effort during World War II, especially the use of prisoner slave labor to build the German rockets. How do you want the audience to feel about him?

Wernher von Braun with President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, 1963. NASA's deputy administrator, Robert Seamans is behind von Braun

Wernher von Braun with President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, 1963. NASA's deputy administrator, Robert Seamans is behind von Braun

Von Braun’s complicity with evil led to one of humankind’s most sublime achievements. I want the audience to discuss and decide among itself: What should the U.S. government have done? Are some minds too essential to execute? What happens when the advancement of knowledge collides with human ethics? These questions don’t yield easy answers, but hopefully they’ll inspire some enlightening post-show discussions.

The play shows sides of Wernher von Braun that audiences may be unfamiliar with: that besides being the world’s foremost rocket scientist, that he was quite the ladies’ man, a skilled musician and music lover, and that in America he had a religious conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Did anything you discovered as part of your research about him surprise you?

Von Braun was only 35 when he converted, a fact crucial to understanding his actions in America. He also married then. While he was sexually charismatic, I believe the moon was his only mistress.

Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun (back row, second from right) and members of his Peenemunde rocket team are congratulated by Gen. Erich Fellgiebel (left), head of the German Army Information Service during WWII, for a successful V-2 rocket test in October 1942.

Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun (back row, second from right) and members of his Peenemunde rocket team are congratulated by Gen. Erich Fellgiebel (left), head of the German Army Information Service during WWII, for a successful V-2 rocket test in October 1942.

What surprised me most was the dramatic unity and irony of von Braun’s experiences; I don’t want to give away any plot twists, but suffice it to say if I wrote them as fiction, you’d say they were implausible. Von Braun’s life suits dramatization because there’s just enough historical record to see the man’s dimensions but not too much to impede speculation. His story has the scope of a Greek tragedy, operatic and Shakespearean in its proportions.

One of the more chilling characters in MAN IN THE MOON is Dolf Baumgarten, a survivor of the Mittelwerk prison camp where the German V-2 rockets were built. Is he based on a historic person?

Dolf is a fictional composite based on the accounts of survivors. The harrowing events he relates are all true.

MAN IN THE MOON interweaves the story of Wernher von Braun with the lives of Glory and Fix Watson. Fix is a black engineer native to Huntsville; Glory, his journalist wife, is a native of Chicago.  Were these characters based on anyone who actually worked with Von Braun? If you invented them, why?

Morgan Watson

Morgan Watson

Like Dolf, Fix is a fictional composite of the black pioneers at NASA, including Morgan Watson, who graciously allowed me to interview him. Given von Braun’s documented support of integration, I felt comfortable inventing his relationship with Fix in the absence of any account. Glory is completely fictional, though her offstage activities are with real people—the activists Dr. John Cashin and Clyde Foster.

We have so many new characters in THE SPACE RACE compared with MAN IN THE MOON: Glory now has two friends, Joan and Myrna; Maria, von Braun’s wife, is now a character; an engineering whistleblower, Thomas Baron, only briefly mentioned before, now takes the stage; and two characters, the mysterious Professor Mannfeldt and Friede, seem to have stepped out of the screen of the 1923 Fritz Lang film Woman in the Moon. And we finally have a true Wagnerian character in Erda, goddess of the Earth. What prompted you to add so many characters? Can you still work with just five actors?

We’re up to six actors now. The addition of all those roles reflects my effort to root the surreal aspects in the psychological reality of the characters. I credit Tony Kushner, who read my rewrite and encouraged me to locate the surreal landscape in the dream world of the characters.

For me this version tackles the same sobering issues as the last: von Braun’s complicity in using slave labor to build the first V-2 rockets under the Nazis; his charming, complex character; the dilemma of the black couple in considering exposing him; but the treatment, the presentation here struck me as more boldly theatrical with more music, more characters, more effects, more flights of fancy, and could there even be more Wagnerian elements in it? Was this as much fun to rework as it reads?

Scene from a film depicting prison laborers working on the V2 rockets at Mittelwerk

Scene from a film depicting prison laborers working on the V2 rockets at Mittelwerk

Welcome to my world. I reject naturalism as an artist because it doesn’t fully express my experience of life. Countless images and sounds course through our consciousness in every moment, so to see a play that only portrays people from the outside feels incomplete to me. So, yes, it is more Wagnerian—not only in its use of his operatic material, but in its conception as a gesantkuntswerk.

You incorporate some serious science into the play with discussion of the “sympathetic vibration” of the rocket and fuel tube and von Braun’s description of the “genesis of the moon.” How did you decide how much science to include in the play?

What excites me most about a narrative that requires science are the metaphors. Science allows us to understand the physical world, but its institutional language puts up a barrier best breached by poetry. In our Disinformation Age, dramatists have a moral obligation to provide and facilitate an accessible forum for ideas. Luckily, theatergoers seem to welcome an intellectual meal if it’s well-prepared.

Secrets of the Universe.jpg

A lot has been going in with you in the past year. Your play The Secrets of the Universe (and Other Songs) about the relationship between Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson had a full production at the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia last July. Did that live up to your expectations? Did anything about that production inform your revisions to THE SPACE RACE?

That production emboldened me as a surrealist. What was so enlightening was how audiences embraced the weird and esoteric from the very moment the play hopped out of naturalism and into the psyches of the characters. The first tier critics didn’t understand it, so they were hostile, which made me realize I need to do a better job communicating my mission as an artist. What was most gratifying was the response of black audiences. As a gay, white man I’m highly sensitive to the perils of writing about the intersectionality of oppressed minorities. So I was thrilled when, during a talkback, a black man in the audience said he was surprised to discover I was white.

How great is it that there is a German song about Alabama? At what point in the writing of MAN IN THE MOON did you realize how you were going to use the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill song “Moon over Alabama” (aka “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)”)?  

The idea came very late in the process, which I find astonishing considering I did my college thesis on Weill. I wrote the play while listening to Wagner, occasionally switching to Haydn’s Creation. When I got the idea to begin the play with “Fly Me to the Moon” in Russian, I instantly thought of using “Moon Over Alabama” and “Stars Fell on Alabama.”

You’ve developed plays and musicals with many different theatrical organizations. How is the EST/Sloan Project play development process different?

As someone who coaches writers, I’m shocked at how rude and insensitive some theater professionals can be when giving notes. Linsay Firman and Graeme Gillis do it right. They organize their thoughts into a digestible size; they ask legitimate questions rather than question-shaped opinions; they focus on what resonates for them as much as what eludes; and they truly seem to hold writers in high esteem.

What’s next for Marc Acito?

A complete departure. I’m back to comedy roots directing a staged concert at the York Theater of the little-known Lerner and Loewe musical The Day Before Spring, which I adapted. It’s like a Doris Day/Rock Hudson romcom—February 9 through 17—the perfect date night for Valentine’s Day.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

Portions of this interview appeared on this blog previously when MAN IN THE MOON had a reading during the 2018 First Light Festival.

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Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder on what photographs miss, Rochester in 1963, finding a voice, and WHAT LOOKS LIKE PRETTY

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder

On Monday, January 28, as part of the 2019 First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project is presenting the first public reading of WHAT LOOKS LIKE PRETTY, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s new play about the intersection of race, the science of capturing images, and business ethics. When an African-American girl goes missing in 1963, colleagues Gloria and Charlie struggle to get a photograph the police can use, and begin to question who gets seen and who is invisible. 

As she traveled east from Tennessee, where she is the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence at Sewanee: The University of the South, Elyzabeth stopped a few moments to answers our questions.    

 What inspired you to write WHAT LOOKS LIKE PRETTY? 

A Kodak “Shirley” card from the 1960s

A Kodak “Shirley” card from the 1960s

Several years ago, I read an article about the Kodak Shirley cards which had been used for color correction in the labs. The photograph was always of a fair-skinned white woman and across the bottom of the photograph they would stamp "NORMAL". It made me think about how visual representations of beauty and "normalcy" shape our perceptions and control the narrative that is created about those who might not fit within that norm.

 What research did you do to prepare to write the play? Did you work with a technical consultant to get the scientific details right?

 In the fall of 2017 I received a research grant to travel to Rochester to view the Kodak archives. It turned out to be a terrifying experience, because the more I read, the more I realized just how complicated the issue actually was. You have the racial bias that influenced what was created in the lab, but you also have to consider how light functions and how our eyes process color and light. I left feeling overwhelmed. 

 OK, that covers research on the science. How about research on the characters?

 I was really struggling to find Gloria's voice in this play; then I was asked to participate in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's State of the South tour. We put four playwrights, the artistic director, and a filmmaker in a van and spent 10 days touring the Southeast, cities and tiny towns, across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, hosting town hall discussions about the changing face of Southern identity. American Theatre did an article on our trip. I heard so many people talk about feeling invisible in their community and the efforts being made to be seen.  Those conversations really got to the heart of Gloria's struggle. You can watch many of these interviews in the video we created afterward: “The State of the South.”

 You set your play in 1963? Why that year?

The Kodak Instamatic 100 from 1963

The Kodak Instamatic 100 from 1963

I really struggled with deciding on the time period. The Shirley cards have been used for years.  However, the Kodak Instamatics were first released in the early 60s and that’s when color photography started to become the norm. The technology was becoming increasingly common and accessible. It was also such a volatile time in our country in terms of race relations. I thought that made for a powerful backdrop. The African-American community was fighting not just for equality, but for visibility, and here you had this new technology that was working against that.  It was also a pivotal time for race relations in Rochester. The African-American population was growing and the city was increasingly divided. The following year all of that tension erupted in the biggest race riot in the city's history.   

You seem to have tapped a rich thematic vein in writing a play about how photography has shaped how we see – and don’t see – each other. And how we remember. Has writing this play changed how you look at photographs? At cameras? 

The way we consume photography has changed dramatically since color photography became mainstream.  It is instant, it is abundant, and it can be manipulated more than ever. Now that everyone has a camera on their phone, we are seeing stories unfold from multiple angles. It's a reminder that a photo can capture an image, but it doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.

Have you written any other plays on scientific subjects?

New startup Hyperlive claims it has an algorithm that can predict hits. See Hyperlive.fm

New startup Hyperlive claims it has an algorithm that can predict hits. See Hyperlive.fm

My play, A Requiem for August Moon, was my first experience writing a play based on a scientific theory. By focusing on a Ph.D. student who develops an algorithm for predicting a hit song, it explores the relationship between art and science.

 Do you have any special advice to give to someone writing a science-themed play?

 The biggest challenge I always face is finding a way to blend the science with the personal. An audience isn't going to be able to invest emotionally in the science, but they will invest in a character who is wrestling with its consequences.  

 When did you know you were a playwright?

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 I spent a lot of time as a kid writing monologues and short plays. I started doing local theatre in the fourth grade and fell in love with it. I always knew I wanted to work in the theatre, but I think I was always aware that I wasn't really an actor. I saw Madeleine George's "The Most Massive Woman Wins" at the Young Playwrights Festival at the Public when I was 17 and that's when I realized that maybe I could write plays, too. Wendy Wasserstein was there that day. I worked up the nerve to talk to her and after I poured my heart out, she told me to go home and write a play. So I did.

 What’s next for Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder?

 I'm working on another play, The Light of the World, which explores our relationship with Confederate iconography.  I'm also researching a new play about service workers at the Atlanta airport and the exploitation of minimum wage employees.

 The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through February 10.  Tickets can be purchased here. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

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Benjamin Weiner on the loves of Alfred Nobel, premature obituaries, dynamite songs, and NOBEL: A NEW MUSICAL

Benjamin Weiner

Benjamin Weiner

On two nights, Friday April 6 (now sold out), and Saturday April 7, The EST/Sloan Project, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, will be presenting the first workshop performances of NOBEL: A NEW MUSICAL by Benjamin Weiner, a lively and often moving exploration of the life and loves of Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, philanthropist, and creator of the Nobel Prizes. Playwright/composer Benjamin Weiner kindly took time to answer our many questions about this project.  

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What inspired you to write a musical about Alfred Nobel?

Alfred Nobel at 30

Alfred Nobel at 30

In September of 2015, I had just quit my teaching job to focus on writing, and I was terrified. Sitting in the biography room at the Brooklyn Public Library, I stumbled across an article about Bertha Von Suttner.  She was briefly Alfred Nobel's housekeeper and secretary in Paris, where they argued about life and death and science. He quickly fell in love with her, but she ran off to elope with a forbidden flame back in Vienna. She became Nobel's lifelong friend, helped reshape his legacy from dynamite to peace, and was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Mixed with the excitement about their incredible and theatrical story, there was a fair amount of relief. I didn't feel quite so unemployed, because I knew what I needed to write.

Why this musical? Why now?

Bertha Kinsky (later von Suttner) in 1872, around the time she first met Nobel.

Bertha Kinsky (later von Suttner) in 1872, around the time she first met Nobel.

There are so many parallels to today. It features a powerful businessman obsessed with his own image (Nobel), nationalistic countries stockpiling weapons and teetering on the edge of war, and a woman fighting to be recognized in a world dominated by men. In the end, the dominant motivation for me was bringing Bertha's story to life. She was a household name in her time, Tolstoy sang her praises for her pacifist work, she was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and NO ONE I have encountered in the past three years has ever heard of her. I am delighted to be changing that.

How would you describe the kind of music you feature in NOBEL? The play’s action runs between 1870 and 1905 but the music isn’t really period music. Did you compose all the music? What number and kind of instruments would you like to hear play it?

The music is kind of folk rock, with some roots in musical theater tradition, and a handful of references to nineteenth-century opera (though it is by no means period music.) It's all original. I'd love to see violin, cello, piano, drums, guitar, and bass. For this workshop version, I think we'll do nicely with piano and a guitar.

Portrait of Alfred Nobel by Emil Osterman. Image provided by the Nobel Foundation.

Portrait of Alfred Nobel by Emil Osterman. Image provided by the Nobel Foundation.

You play with time in the play, switching back and forth between scenes between Emanuel, Nobel’s nephew and executor of his estate, and Bertha von Suttner, after Alfred has died and between Alfred and Bertha in their younger years. How did you decide that was the structure that worked best for your story?

I've always loved that kind of structure. From Shakespeare starting Romeo and Juliet with a massive spoiler about their deaths, to Andrew Lloyd Webber's chandelier reassembling itself, to Sondheim's Follies or Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine — there's something really powerful to me about jumping in time, especially starting at the end and showing how you got there. It lets the audience stop worrying about what's going to happen, and lets them focus on the story itself.  For a historical piece, where the story is a google away, that felt right.   

Your play introduces us to the two loves of Nobel’s life, Bertha von Suttner and Sofie Hess — he kept up with both of them for a good part of his life — yet he never married. Any theories about why?

Sofie Hess

Sofie Hess

Well, Bertha was in love with someone else, and Sophie was twenty years old and mostly interested in Nobel's money. But at the root of it was Nobel's own heart. His journals and letters are filled with insecurity and self-loathing. In the words of RuPaul— "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love someone else?"  

You mention that Bertha won the Nobel Peace Prize herself in 1905, nine years after Nobel’s death. She was only the second woman after Marie Curie to win a Nobel. How solid were her credentials for winning?

She completely deserved it — she built groundwork for the UN and the EU before anyone was dreaming about them, and wrote the seminal pacifist book of her time. And she is, arguably, the reason why the prize existed in the first place. But, being a woman, she still had to fight for it.

You manage to pack an impressive amount of scientific detail into your lyrics. I expect that “Throw It Down” is the first song with C3H5N3O9 in it. Can you offer tips on how to make science musical? Any chance you’re a fan of Tom Lehrer?

Thank you! I think for any musical number, the key question is, “why is this person singing?” And the answer is usually because the moment is too big for spoken words. “Throw It Down” takes place at the bottom of a cliff, where Nobel is defending dynamite and its safety in front of a crowd of Manhattanites by having an assistant throw dynamite down on him. That's a huge moment, and a song packed with the science of his invention feels justified to me. And YES!  I love Tom Lehrer.  I definitely owe a lot to him.

Nobel's letter to Bertha in French from Paris dated January 7, 1893 in which he outlines his idea of establishing a prize for those who made important contributions to the cause of peace in Europe.

Nobel's letter to Bertha in French from Paris dated January 7, 1893 in which he outlines his idea of establishing a prize for those who made important contributions to the cause of peace in Europe.

You include in the play the curious incident where Nobel reads his own obituary prematurely in 1888 when his brother dies and the papers write about the wrong Nobel. “The merchant of death is dead!” the obituary read. “Alfred Nobel, who made his money finding more ways to kill people faster than ever before.”  He apparently got so upset about this being his legacy that he then changed his will to devote his wealth to setting up the prizes. Is this a true incident? Might we have no Nobel Prizes if Paris had better reporters?

It is real. While I'm more inclined to give Bertha the lion's share of the credit, I do think it was an incredible gift for him, and helped him realize how he would be remembered if he didn't do something about it.     

What kind of research did you do to write NOBEL? 

There is a lot of wonderful source material — biographies of Nobel, Bertha's memoirs, her pacifist novel, a lot of letters. There's such a wealth of information, and I was sorely tempted to include it all. Linsay and Graeme really helped me find the story of this musical, and not worry so much about including every historical detail. Maybe I can save some of them for liner notes, someday.

We learn in your musical that Nobel fancied himself a writer, writing poems and a play. Have you read any of his works? Any good? 

Poster from 2005 world premiere of Nemesis, Nobel's play, at Strindbergs Intima Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden.

Poster from 2005 world premiere of Nemesis, Nobel's play, at Strindbergs Intima Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden.

Yeah, they're not great. In fact, to protect his image his estate destroyed almost all the copies of his play. Thankfully it survived, because it's still a fascinating window into who he was, his obsession with death and unrequited love. And I've turned one of his poems, which he showed to Bertha in Paris, into a song. It's about worms eating dead bodies. I think it's really funny, but I don't think Nobel intended it that way. Mostly though, I use his letters, which are wonderful and vivid. He was a great correspondent. 

Have you written other musicals? What were they about?

Pants, Dante's Inferno, Santa Claus, gentrification, Pippi Longstocking, and now Roy Sullivan, a real man who was struck by lightning seven times throughout his life. That one you can see May 11th and 12th at the Jalopy Theatre.

Have you written other plays about science?

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Yes. I've been working for a few years as the writer in residence for the Upstream Artists Collective, an incredible group that is making theater about climate change. I wrote a play for them called The Noise. It's a Babylonian flood myth updated for today, and inspired by work I did with first graders after Hurricane Sandy. The goal is to keep our stories theatrical and entertaining and, at the same time, call into question how to live and make theater that is itself sustainable. Usually, it's not. 

Are you still performing the songs of Princess Backpack? Tell us more about how these came about.

Yes!  My backpack is a princess who can talk and sing. She comes from Backpackia and is hoping to meet Jay-Z to further her rap career. Together we made a kids album, which you can find at PrincessBackpack.com. It's weirdly popular in Australia.

What’s next for Benjamin Weiner?

Roy Sullivan: Lightning Man, at the Jalopy Theatre, May 11th and 12th.  Then, a long nap.

The 2018 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from February 5 through April 7 and features readings and workshop productions of eight new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year is the world premiere of BUMP by Chiara Atik. Directed by Claudia Weill, BUMP is a wildly entertaining exploration of the history of pregnancy and childbirth, from colonial times until now. Tickets are on sale now for performances, May 9 through June 3. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

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Charly Evon Simpson on medical experiments on slaves, the birth of gynecology, lost voices, and BEHIND THE SHEET

Charly Evon Simpson

Charly Evon Simpson

On Tuesday, April 3, the EST/Sloan Project, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival will present the first workshop of BEHIND THE SHEET, the powerful new play by Charly Evon Simpson about how medical experiments on plantation slaves in Alabama in the 1840s led to the birth of the science of gynecology in America. The playwright has much to tell us.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)  

How did BEHIND THE SHEET come to be? How has it changed through different drafts?

Statue of J. Marion Sims at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue in NYC

Statue of J. Marion Sims at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue in NYC

A few years ago, I read an article about a group of women protesting at a statue of J. Marion Sims. As someone interested in how black women’s bodies have been seen and treated throughout history, I found myself trying to learn more about Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy (the three enslaved women we know Sims experimented on) and how slavery intersected with the rise of gynecology. When it came time to apply for an EST/Sloan commission, my brain immediately went back to this history.

The play has changed since the proposal. For example, my first proposal included a more contemporary piece—a black woman gynecologist having to reconcile this history of her field. I soon decided to just focus on the history. Characters have come and gone, scenes have been cut and added, and history has made its way in and out of the story. My first draft was very true to what we know happened. This current draft allows a little more room for my voice and imagination, while staying true to the basic facts.

As you say, the play tells a story strongly inspired by the work of J. Marion Sims, a physician often referred to as the "father of gynecology" who practiced medicine in Alabama in the 1840s. He is credited with inventing the speculum and, most notoriously, trying out new gynecological surgical procedures on slaves without using anesthesia. But you don't use his name for your main character, whom you call George, and you give the female characters names different from the ones we know from history. Why the name changes? How is the story in the play different from Sims’?

“J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon,” painting by Robert Thom, from the Great Moments in Medicine series, shows Sims with Anarcha, as Betsey and Lucy look on.

“J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon,” painting by Robert Thom, from the Great Moments in Medicine series, shows Sims with Anarcha, as Betsey and Lucy look on.

I’ve gone back and forth on the name changes. And, you never know, perhaps the name changes won’t exist in a future draft, but for right now, it allows me some distance from the real story. It allows me to play as a writer in a way that I wasn’t able to when I was using their real names and really focused on getting every historical detail right. With the name changes, I am acknowledging that some of this is fiction. It is historical fiction. I am very aware that we don’t know what Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy were thinking or saying. I have J. Marion Sims’ book, for example, and what he says about them, but I don’t have their words. And I didn’t want to put words in their mouths. I want to shed light on this history and I want to give voice to the experience from the women’s perspective. For me, it is easier to explore the possibility of their perspectives without using their real names. That said, we make a point at the end of the play to bring it back to Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and J. Marion Sims. I don’t want to lose them or ignore them. I want the audience to know their names.

Why this play? Why now?

In December 2017, ProPublica published an article entitled “Nothing Protects Black Women from Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth.” The article is heartbreaking and shows how much more at risk black women are when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. Education, income…when it comes to black women successfully carrying a child to term and surviving the childbirth and weeks after, it seems nothing is protecting us. In February 2018, Serena Williams shared her own struggles and complications after giving birth. There is a long history of our physical pain being ignored. There is a long history of black women being used for medical innovation while at the same time being ignored by medicine. This history, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, has influenced our current medical systems. And it is important to know the history so that we can make strides away from it. 

Women of all races are fighting for their reproductive rights and their healthcare right now, and I think it is important to acknowledge that some women have to fight particular fights that their counterparts do not. This is one of the fights. 

Illustration of Sims repairing a vesico-vaginal fistula with silver wire sutures (1870)

Illustration of Sims repairing a vesico-vaginal fistula with silver wire sutures (1870)

BEHIND THE SHEET features five black slave women and one black slave man. How did you come to decide how many different black slave voices you wanted to dramatize? Did the number or the kind of voices change over time?

To be honest, I’m not sure. It just happened. I started with only three black women, but also wanted to somehow honor the other women Sims experimented on whose names we don’t know. So I felt free to move away from the three women and add the voices that came to me. 

There is an article in The Journal of Medical Ethics that states that "Although enslaved African American women certainly represented a ‘vulnerable population’ in the 19th century American South, the evidence suggests that Sims's original patients were willing participants in his
surgical attempts to cure their affliction." What do you make of this statement?

My first instinct is that, sure, if you are in pain and someone offers you a possible way out of that pain, chances are you might be willing to agree to experiments aimed at curing you. That said, “willing” is a…complicated word to use in reference to enslaved people. The power dynamic alone complicates any ideas around the word “willing”. What does willing even mean when your rights have been stripped away and your body is often being used in service of other people? When one does not own their own body, and when their worth is attached to said body, how does consent work? If any of them said “no,” how do we think their owners may have reacted? Also, if there was any notion of willingness and if it was respected at first, was there any room for that “willingness” to end? When Sims took on the financial burden of taking care of these women who were “unfit” to do much of what was expected to them, are we sure he would have been willing to stop?  Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other women—along with J. Marion Sims—didn’t know it would take numerous surgeries to find a cure for fistulas. If Anarcha wanted to stop at surgery 15, would she have been able to? What may have been done to “convince" her to keep going? 

We have a tendency to want to make our history seem way more light, bright, and friendly than it actually is. History is complicated. I’d rather we live in the complications than ignore them. 

What do you want the audience to take away from BEHIND THE SHEET?

Front page of New York Daily News on February 8, 2018 reporting on relocation of Sims statue to Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Front page of New York Daily News on February 8, 2018 reporting on relocation of Sims statue to Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

When director Colette Robert first read the play, she said she had to put it down because it made her stomach hurt. I don’t want to cause people pain, but I do hope the audience feels the discomfort, feels the complicatedness, feels the pain that is intertwined in our history. You can be grateful there is a cure for fistulas. You can also be disappointed that it was found at the expense of black women’s bodies. Holding those two feelings inside is possible and it is messy and it is uncomfortable and I want us to do it anyway. I hope the audience walks away feeling that messiness, thinking about that discomfort, and wondering what systems we may have in place that continue this history.

What kind of research did you do to write BEHIND THE SHEET? Did you work with a consultant?

I didn’t have a consultant. I read J. Marion Sims’ book, The Story of My Life. I read numerous articles, listened to talks (like "Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology" on NPR) and parts of books like, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A Washington. I read Patient. by Bettina Judd which is a book of poetry intertwining her experience as a patient with the experiences of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy (as well as other black women who found themselves in the role of patient under racist conditions). I went to talks. Then I had to stop researching and just write the play. I wanted to respect and honor the history, but I also knew I was creating a piece of fiction and so I had to find a balance. 

How is BEHIND THE SHEET different from your other plays?

BEHIND THE SHEET is my most historical play. I have plays, like my play Hottenttotted, that has historical figures in them or attempts to discuss/shed light on an aspect of history, but this play is the most historical in that it is set in the past and tries to stay true to certain aspects of the history in a very big way.

You have been a member of EST's Youngblood program.  What impact did being a member have on your writing?

I have to say that I think the biggest impact for me was not on my writing, but on my understanding and participation in the theater community. I became a member of Youngblood only two months after moving back to NYC. While I knew a few people from college and high school doing theater in the city, being in Youngblood allowed me to meet a wide variety of actors, directors, writers, stage managers, etc. Many of my first theater opportunities came from people I met at EST. They helped me find my footing and place and continue to even after nearly two years out of the group. 

What's next for Charly Evon Simpson?

Jump.jpg

I have a few readings of new plays coming up in April and May with SPACE on Ryder Farm and Clubbed Thumb, respectively. Next January, my play Jump premieres at PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina. And there are some exciting things happening in between!

The 2018 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from February 5 through April 6 and features readings and workshop productions of eight new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year is the world premiere of BUMP by Chiara Atik. Directed by Claudia Weill, BUMP is a wildly entertaining exploration of the history of pregnancy and childbirth, from colonial times until now. Tickets are on sale now for performances, May 9 through June 3. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

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Gabrielle Reisman on land loss, Jean Lafitte, traveling theatre, and JEUNE TERRE

Beginning Thursday, March 1 and running through Saturday, March 3, the EST/Sloan Project is co-sponsoring with Barnard College’s New Plays at Barnard four performances of JEUNE TERRE, the compelling new play by Gabrielle Reisman, a satellite event of the 2018 First Light Festival. Performances will be at the Glicker-Milstein Theatre at Barnard College. Set on a bayou several miles southwest of....

Robert Lyons on Émile Zola, Claude Bernard, science, playwriting, and ZOLA’S LABORATORY

On Monday, February 26, the EST/Sloan Project, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, will present the first public reading of ZOLA’S LABORATORY, the saucy new play by Robert Lyons imagining the problems the young Émile Zola faced in introducing Naturalism to the French theater. Zola based many of his ideas on the scientific principles of the famed French physiologist....

Kristin Idaszak on Prohibition, Privilege, Forensic Toxicology, and THE SUREST POISON

On Tuesday, February 27, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project will present the first public reading of Kristin Idaszak’s riveting new play, THE SUREST POISON, a fast-paced whodunit in which 1920s New York City spawns not just Prohibition and Jazz Age speakeasies, but also the birth of forensic science. The play’s many colorful characters include Lipstick, The New Yorker ’s flapper correspondent....

Christina Quintana on planet hunting, academic anxiety, women’s basketball, and CITIZEN SCIENTIST

On Monday, February 12, the EST/Sloan Project is excited to host, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, the first public reading of CITIZEN SCIENTIST, the moving new play by Christina Quintana. The play follows the pursuits in 2010 of two inquiring minds, one a young astronomer seeking a tenure-worthy project at a major university, the other a retired actuary....

C. Denby Swanson on Frances Glessner Lee, dolls as forensic tools, truth, justice, and NUTSHELL

On Thursday, February 8, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project will host the first public reading of NUTSHELL, a riveting new play by C. Denby Swanson. The play’s charismatic central character is Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962), the Chicago heiress often called the “mother of forensic science” because of her lifelong interest in how detectives solve crimes. In 1931, she endowed....

Marc Acito on Wernher von Braun, Alabama in the sixties, the ethics and dreams of America’s Apollo program, and MAN IN THE MOON

On Monday, February 5, as part of this year’s First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project will host the first public reading of MAN IN THE MOON: An American Dream by Marc Acito.  The play opens in 1967 when 55-year-old German émigré rocket scientist Wernher von Braun is on the verge of realizing his lifelong dream of putting a man on the moon. For the past seventeen years he....

Cassandra Medley on writing plays about science, belief systems, making choices, harbored racism, fracking, and COMING UP FOR AIR

On Tuesday, March 28, this year’s EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature a reading of COMING UP FOR AIR by Cassandra Medley. In 2006, her play Relativity was an EST/Sloan mainstage production...

Andrea Lepcio on Dangerous Chemicals, Personal Chemistry, Climate Change and WORLD AVOIDED

On Tuesday, February 7, this year’s EST/Sloan First Light Festival features the first reading of Andrea Lepcio’s new play, WORLD AVOIDED. The title captures in two words the future environmentalists hope their efforts can deliver: a future different from the one we are destined to arrive at if we don’t change our behavior.

Susan Bernfield on Poppy Northcutt, Apollo 8, the swinging sixties, and SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY

On Tuesday, January 31, the 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature the first reading of Susan Bernfield ’s sparkling new play SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY, a drama about Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first female engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control.