Henrietta Leavitt knew what it meant to work beneath a glass ceiling—literally. After starting out as a clerk at Harvard University’s astronomy department, she ended up becoming an actual astronomer by taking work that men at the turn of the 19th century considered beneath them, spending long, painstaking hours deciphering glass slides. The joke was on the guys, though, as that work led Leavitt to uncover truths about our universe that would influence later scientists such as Edwin Hubble and—almost a century after her death—would inspire Atlanta playwright Lauren Gunderson’s 2011 science-drama Silent Sky, opening this month at Main Street Theater.
Of course, Harvard wasn’t the only institution of the era that hired women to sift through piles of slides. They were, after all, cheap labor. “It was a catch-22,” says Shannon Emerick, an actress and the theater’s director of marketing. Universities made new opportunities for women, “but they did it because they knew [women] would do it for much less and do a better job.”
The themes in Gunderson’s story are universal: romance, history, themes of feminism and bigotry. And to bring galaxies far, far away to life, the space at Main Street has been transformed into an observatory from the days of yore. Stars twinkle throughout the play, adding a bit of magic to the set.
Rebecca Udden, the theater’s artistic director, says she’s fascinated by Leavitt’s new way of looking at the universe. It was her scientific breakthrough, after all, that allowed astronomers to figure out the distance from earth to distant galaxies. “Prior to her discovery, man thought that the Milky Way was as far as everything went,” she says.
Emerick, meanwhile, says it was Leavitt’s drive and self-sufficiency that drew her to the story. “She just sort of put her blinders on and went for it …. She kind of went on her path even without recognition in her lifetime,” she says. “Henrietta just had this passion to figure out where we were in the world. She made it possible to do that.”
Nov. 7–29 Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. mainstreettheater.com