LaGrange College Theatre to present “Silent Sky”

Published 3:48 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023

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In the early 1900s at Harvard University, a group of dedicated women who were passionate about the stars transformed the field of astronomy.

Though not given credit for their discoveries in the male-dominated world of science until much later in their lives, they paved the way for future generations of scientists both male and female. Three of these female pioneers, Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Fleming, are characters in the LaGrange College Theatre Arts production of Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky.”

“The play is based on the true story of these extraordinary women astronomers labeled ‘human computers’ at the Harvard Observatory where they diligently and painstakingly mapped over 350,000 stars on glass photographic plates,” said Director Kim Barber Knoll, LaGrange College Professor of Theatre Arts.

“The women were not allowed to touch or use The Great Refractor telescope which Observatory Director Edward Pickering used entirely for photometry at the turn of the century. This did not stop Miss Leavitt. Working during her ‘free time’ late into the night, she discovered a way to measure beyond the galaxy as she mapped the universe.”

Sophomore Isabella Rapoza, who plays the role of Henrietta, said her character’s life and relationships are as complex as the universe.

“Henrietta is trying to figure out how to navigate her life since leaving her family behind to pursue the dream of being an astronomer,” she said. “She receives guidance from her relationship with Annie and Williamina. But her most powerful relationship is the stars themselves.”

Senior Carlie Jones, who plays the role of Williamina, said her character laid the groundwork for women like Henrietta to make achievements in the field of astronomy.

“She started as Pickering’s housekeeper and because he thought ‘women could do the job of mapping the stars better than boys,’ he hired her at the Observatory,” she said. She became the first woman to be given an official title at Harvard University, publishing the famous ‘Draper Catalogue’ of star classification based on color. She was very drawn to Henrietta and she wanted all women to be credited and compensated for their outstanding work and contributions to astronomy.”

Henrietta expanded on the work of her fellow peer Annie Jump Cannon, who developed a system used to classify stars based on temperature instead of just colors alone like Williamina.

Senior Annabell Sapp, who plays the role of Annie, said her character has a change in heart over the course of the show.

“Though skeptical of Henrietta and her abilities at first, Annie’s faith in her grows as she realizes the magnitude of Henrietta’s work,” she said. “Annie is a champion of women’s rights, and Henrietta’s independence and drive serves as a catalyst for her.”

Margaret Leavitt, played by sophomore Aubrey Helton, is as passionate about music as her sister Henrietta is about astronomy.

“Her ultimate dream is to be a famous musician one day,” she said. “She tries to stay connected to Henrietta through letters when she leaves for Harvard, but they drift apart. Margaret is determined to mend her relationship with her sister, and she is there when Henrietta needs her most.”

“It’s a beautifully written play,” Barber Knoll said. “Moving, romantic and humorous. And the stars play a significant role as well.”

The show opens Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m. and runs Thursday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m. with two shows on Friday, Nov. 17 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Seating is general admission—no reservations are necessary. It is recommended that patrons arrive early. The show is free for LaGrange College faculty, staff and students; $10 for adults and free for children under 12.