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Secrets of the Universe
and other songs

Jordan Leigh as Albert Einstein and Mary Louise Lee as Marian Anderson
Jordan Leigh as Albert Einstein and Mary Louise Lee as Marian Anderson
Photo: Gail Marie Bransteitter
 
When two geniuses from vastly different fields meet, anything can happen, as we see in the Aurora Fox's world premiere of Marc Acito's imaginative exploration of the real-life friendship of Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson, who find common ground in their art and in their social activism.

Jordan Leigh as Albert Einstein
Jordan Leigh as Albert Einstein
Photo: Gail Marie Bransteitter
 
The renown of each in their respective fields of theoretical physics and operatic voice requires exceptional verisimilitude on the part of the actors, and that is what we are gifted by Jordan Leigh as Einstein and Mary Louise Lee as Anderson.

The story begins as it happened in real life, with Einstein inviting Anderson to be his guest for a couple of days, for her performance at Princeton University, because the local hotels would not allow an African-American to have a room.

Mary Louise Lee as Marian Anderson
Mary Louise Lee as Marian Anderson
Photo: Gail Marie Bransteitter
 
Acito's script is rich in details of Einstein's and Anderson's lives, perspectives, and personalities, and Leigh and Lee mine all the nuances in their personifications: the complexity of Einstein's logical reasoning and his use of humor to bring things down to earth, and Anderson's transcendent voice and deep-seated faith.

The discussions between the two cover a wide range of topics, but one of the most telling, in terms of worldviews, is when Einstein explains that his famous equation of E=mc2 is akin to singing, and Anderson explains how the breath and the vocal chords and the chest and head resonance can be broken down into matter and energy.

ALBERT
Tell me, how does one sing? What is required, physically?

MARIAN
It’s as natural as breathing. It is breathing. The air in your lungs passes through the vocal cords, which vibrate to produce the pitch of the note, which resonates in the nasalpharyngeal cavity.

ALBERT
Just like my equation.

MARIAN
Oh, come now.

ALBERT
All right, it's not just like, but it is similar. E stands for energy, a property that cannot exist on its own. It must be transferred to an object, like the air you breathe in and out of your lungs. The energy of that air passes through your vocal cords, which have mass, m. But here’s the best part—I can’t believe I never thought of it before—by definition, the only way you can measure mass is by its response to motion, or in this case a constant rate of motion, which we call—

MARIAN & ALBERT
"C."

ALBERT
Which is amplified by the nazey—phazey

MARIAN
Nasal-pharyngeal cavity.

ALBERT
To fill a concert hall. Think of it: the sound made by a centimeter of flesh in motion is multiplied exponentially to fill a space thousands of times larger. That is the power of my equation. It can unleash a force capable of creating the universe.

MARIAN
I can hardly do that.

ALBERT
But you yourself said that you commune with your god.

MARIAN
I’m just the messenger, Albert, not the message.

Lee's singing moves us in much the same way that music critic Alan Blyth described Anderson: "Her voice was a rich, vibrant contralto of intrinsic beauty." During a 1935 tour in Salzburg, the conductor Arturo Toscanini told Anderson she had a voice "heard once in a hundred years."

Andrew Fischer, pianist, Mary Louise Lee as Marian Anderson, and Jordan Leigh as Albert Einstein
Andrew Fischer, pianist,
Mary Louise Lee as Marian Anderson,
and Jordan Leigh as Albert Einstein
Photo: Gail Marie Bransteitter
 
While we don't have a recording of Lee's performance, we do have a film of Anderson's most famous moment, which Lee recreates in the play. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused Anderson's request to sing to an integrated audience in their segregated Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. With the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the capital. She sang before an integrated crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. You can relive this here. The DAR later apologized to Anderson, who then sang at the hall on a number of occasions.

Anderson continued to break racial barriers in the U.S., becoming the first black person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City (on January 7, 1955).

Sharon Kay White as Eleanor Roosevelt and Mark Rubald as Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Sharon Kay White as Eleanor Roosevelt
and Mark Rubald as Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Photo: Gail Marie Bransteitter
 
Anderson's accompanist at the time of her initial visits with Einstein, Kosti Vehanen (Mark Rubald, in a poignant, touching performance), suffers through similar prejudices as a gay man. Sharon Kay White is marvelous as Helen, Einstein's caretaker. Fantastic work, too, by Andrew Fischer as Orpheus Fisher, Anderson's husband, and as the pianist for Lee.

Acito's script is filled with humorous moments:

ALBERT
So, Miss Anderson, she has no man in her life?

KOSTI
Oh, many.

ALBERT
Really? And what kind of man does she prefer?

KOSTI
Geniuses.

ALBERT
Ja?

KOSTI
German geniuses.

ALBERT
Huh. Anyone I know?

KOSTI
Of course. You know all of them.

ALBERT
All of them?

KOSTI
Ja. Schumann, Mendelsohnn, Brahms ...

Leigh's Einstein exudes the avuncular warmth, simplicity, and directness for which the elder Einstein was known; yet, Acito deftly gets right to the heart of the physicist's technical brilliance, the quest for the Unified Field Theory, by which Einstein hoped to reconcile the four fundamental forces of nature—the macro: gravity and electro-magnetism; and the micro (nuclear): the strong force and the weak force—something he was not able to accomplish during his life, lacking certain breakthroughs in mathematics that came after his death, most notably applied in String Theory.

Einstein and Anderson friendship continued until Einstein's death, with Anderson visiting him during his transition.

In a conversation early in their acquaintence, Einstein questioned Anderson on her performing for segregated audiences, to which she pushed back, though later in her career she embraced Einstein's suggestion. The same prejudices to which Anderson and all persons of color were subjected in the U.S., and to which Einstein and all Jews and other non-"Aryans" were subjected in Germany and Europe are still with us today, but their heartwarming friendship shines a light for us moving forward.

The Aurora Fox's presentation of Secrets of the Universe, directed by Helen R. Murray, runs through March 15th. For tickets: aurorafoxartscenter.org/.

Bob Bows



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