A forgotten astronomer and pioneer for women’s rights

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 11/30/23

Now running at Stagecrafters, Silent Sky honors the life of pioneer astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.

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A forgotten astronomer and pioneer for women’s rights


Now running at Stagecrafters, Silent Sky honors the life of pioneer astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. Famous a hundred years ago, she is now forgotten. Unlike Edwin Hubble, few know her name. Playwright Lauren Gunderson wants recognition for Henrietta Leavitt's achievement. 

Henrietta Leavitt

Henrietta was born in Lancaster, Mass in 1968, where her father was a Congregational minister. More restive than her siblings, Henrietta yearned to belong in the larger world. She studied widely at Oberlin and Radcliffe Colleges but came to focus on math and science.

At Cambridge, she attracted the attention of Edward Charles Pickering, head of the Harvard College Observatory. He recruited her to join "Pickering's Harem", a group of women who worked as "Computers", (for centuries, the term referred to people who specialize in computing numbers).

"Pickering's computers" were tasked with cataloging star data recorded on the photographic plates of Harvard's state-of-the-art refractory telescope. Yet the women were denied entry into the astronomy laboratory, and Henrietta chaffed at being limited to narrow, technical duties.

Despite restrictions, Henrietta achieved ground-breaking successes. She came to specialize in "Variable Stars, " which passed through wax and wan cycles from earthly perception. Her study of the relationship between luminosity and cycle period led to "Leavitt's Law".

Her work was the first "standard candle" for measurement of stellar distances and Edwin Hubble immediately used it to demonstrate the expanding universe.  By 1925 some wanted to nominate Leavitt for the Nobel Prize, only to learn she had died of stomach cancer in 1923.

Pickering's Harem

Silent Sky is about "Pickering's Harem".  Annie Cannon (born 1863) created the "Harvard Classification Scheme" and cataloged a staggering number of stars. Stacy Skinner captures her aura, erect and decisive in movement, commanding without being offensive. You are not surprised to see her sport a suffragette ceremonial sash at Henrietta's deathbed. 

Willamina Fleming (born 1857), formerly Pickering's housemaid, became another "Harvard Computer". She was the first to identify a "White Dwarf", and her classification system based on relative hydrogen content was a precursor to Cannon's work. Krishna Dunston has fun playing the astronomer pioneer, a Scottish woman who refuses to take anything too seriously with crusty good humor.     

But in Silent Sky Henrietta lives in her own world. In the hands of Andrea Ong, she has an independent, radiant core. Whenever in distress, Org's Henrietta only talks to the sky for guidance, and her face joyously waxes and wanes as though she were a variable star in her own right.

Costume Design by Jen Allegra further individuates the women, while directors Yaga Brady and Patrick Martin bring this arcane world to life. Three isolated work benches give the sense of closeted creativity. The surrounding stage walls yield an enveloping view of the Milky Way, a mysterious and evasive world of shifting lights, (Set Design by Richard Stewart, Lighting Design by Gilbert Todd).   

Antagonist and Character Arc

The three women are real historical characters, but in Silent Sky playwright Gunderson has a problem: Her protagonist, the historical Henrietta Leavitt, had a sunny disposition and took hardships in stride. She was convivial with cohorts and dutiful to church and family. What is the storyline? Gunderson's solution: create characters who never existed to instill dramatic conflict.

Leah O'Hara is staunch in her portrait of Margaret, Henrietta's elder sister, who stays home to care for their dying father. Margaret fights with Henrietta because she never visits. Triston Haq shines as Peter Shaw. He is Henrietta's suitor, so spastic and stumbling he doubles as comic relief.   

These characters, however, never existed. Their purpose is to gin up dramatic interest in a play that would otherwise be a sterile accolade. In Silent Sky, no character undergoes significant change, much less a "character arc".  Everyone is likable and, as we never meet Pickering, no antagonist comes into view. 

Over the past decade, Lauren Gunderson has been America's most widely produced playwright. A subtext of feminist activism informs the bulk of her work. In Silent Sky she stays true to form, a theatrical documentary that seeks to right the historical record and attack a paternalistic social order.

Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. Silent Sky will run through 10 Dec. Tickets available at 215-247-8881.