SARASOTA – This past weekend, I was finally able to review theater again. It was the first time I'd been to a play since February of 2020, so it would have been pretty difficult to leave disappointed. However, the Florida Studio Theatre's production of Deborah Brevoort's My Lord, What a Night did not need such anticipation to assist it in wowing me. This is a riveting story with a timely message that speaks to the present from 83 years in the past.
After performing a sold-out concert before an all-white audience in Princeton, NJ, in 1937, internationally-acclaimed songstress Marian Anderson was refused a room at the whites-only Nassau Inn, where she had been booked, even though its owner had attended the performance. When he heard of the injustice, Albert Einstein–who was on faculty at Princeton at the time–invited her to stay in his own home, causing a bit of a scandal.
The play deftly reminds us that nostalgia over fighting the Nazis tends to leave out the complicated backdrop of what was happening to both Jews and Blacks in the United States–and more specifically at its most esteemed Universities–at the time. After renouncing his German citizenship and emigrating to the States, Einstein became a fierce critic of the way Blacks were treated here, causing problems for him in many academic and social circles. His commitment to spending whatever celebrity he attained on the cause of social justice, however, never waned.
Anderson was near the peak of her popularity at the time, and while she'd experienced such hatred while performing in the South, she was taken aback by such an affront having transpired in a Northern city of academic renown. While she would go on to be a hero of the Civil Rights movement, at the time, she remained reluctant to actively participate in demonstrations, preferring to attempt to move the opinion of whites through their connection with her art. The central theme of the play is becoming part of something larger than one's self and how the challenges in doing so can be heightened when a certain level of comfort among the afflicted has been attained.
New York-based film, television, and theatre star Thursday Farrar gives an absolutely riveting performance as Anderson, her intense dramatic effort matched by her stellar vocal talents, which made it all the more difficult to remember you weren't watching Anderson herself. David Edwards scores big points in managing to pull off a very credible Einstein, who Brevoort uses to brilliant comedic effect.
Rod Brogan, who gave a solid performance in FST's 2020 production of American Son, once again shines in the supporting role of Abraham Flexner, a nervous and somewhat apologetic Jew who brought Einstein’s to the school's Institute for Advanced Study, which he oversaw. Nehassaiu deGannes also returns to FST, matching Farrar's intensity as civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell, who is more to the mind of Einstein on the issues, while Flexner mirrors Anderson's sentiment.
Directed by Kate Alexander, My Lord What a Night runs through August 15. Visit the FST website for ticket information.