Love astronomy? See Silent Sky at Birmingham-Southern College Jan. 23-26


Silent Sky at BSC
The cast of Silent Sky at Birmingham-Southern College. Photo courtesy of Cameron Carnes.

Ever heard of Henrietta Swan Leavitt? Silent Sky is a play about this pioneering astronomer who Edwin Hubble said deserved the Nobel Prize for her work measuring the universe. You can see the play Jan. 23-26 at Birmingham Southern’s College Theatre | The Underground. Get tickets now.

1. Silent Sky, by Lauren Gunderson, tells the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt.

BSC rehearsal of Silent Sky
Director Alan Litsey at a rehearsal for Silent Sky. Photo via Bham Now.

If you’re a fan of movies like Hidden Figures or The Imitation Game, you’re sure to love Silent Sky. Alternatively, if you love stargazing, you’re not going to want to miss this one.

The play, which begins in 1900, is loosely based on the life of Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Here’s what the actor who plays Leavitt had to say:

“The play follows the life story of a 20th century astronomer named Henrietta Leavitt—the one who created Leavitt’s Law.

This is the standard that inspired Hubble’s work and helped make sure we knew there were things outside of our galaxy.

The play follows her life, her determination and passion for astronomy, for having to fight her way through a very patriarchal, scientific world.

Mhairi Kerr, who plays Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Henrietta Swain Leavitt
These are just a few of the accomplishments of Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s short life. Graphic from Pinterest

According to the official synopsis of the play, “Silent Sky is the poignant tale of a woman’s dedication to the stars, and the human touch that makes life under the vast sky beautiful and timeless.”

2. Mhairi Kerr plays main character Henrietta Swan Leavitt with passion.

Mhairi Kerr as Henriette Swan Leavitt
Henrietta Swan Leavitt and her fictional sister Margaret . Photo courtesy of Cameron Carnes.

Lead actor Mhairi Kerr’s name is pronounced “VAR-ee Care” which is probably not what you would have guessed. In case you’re wondering, like I was, it’s Gaelic, from Scotland.

We talked about what she loves most about this play:

“I see myself in her passion. She is an incredibly dedicated and passionate person and that shows through.

She has so much energy and dedication to her work. Even though the men don’t want to let her use the telescope, she finds a way to fight through all of these barriers anyway.

I’m a little jealous of that determination. That’s what I want to be. I want to have that certainty. She goes through all of it with pride and strength and I admire that.”

Mhairi Kerr, who plays Henrietta Leavitt

3. You’ll meet two other women astronomers in the play.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt and colleagues
Just a few women changing the course of astronomy. Photo courtesy of Cameron Carnes.

In addition to Henrietta Leavitt and two fictional characters (sister Margie and love interest Peter Shaw), there are two other historical figures in the play:

  • Williamina Fleming (played by Louisa Davis): originally a teacher from Scotland, she ended up working as a maid for Dr. Edward Pickering, the same astronomer and physicist Leavitt ended up working for. When he got frustrated with his male astronomy assistants, he declared that his maid would do a better job. She proved him right, came up with a classification system for stars, catalogued thousands of stars, and btw also discovered the Horsehead Nebula. As was customary at the time, Pickering got most of the credit for her work.
  • Annie Jump Canon (played by Tivona Thomas): another member of Edward Pickering’s “harem”—a group of women also known as “computers,” she did mathematical computations for male Harvard astronomers who were allowed to touch Harvard’s Great Refractor telescope. She cataloged tens of thousands of stars, among other notable scientific achievements.

4. 24 students are part of Silent Sky at Birmingham-Southern.

BSC rehearsal of Silent Sky
The cast of Silent Sky rehearsing at Birmingham-Southern. Photo via Bham Now

While there are five characters in the cast, 24 students play key roles in Silent Sky, directed by Theatre Professor Alan Litsey. Without them, the show couldn’t go on, according to publicist Tania Alvarez-Hernandez:

  • Set crew — “bringing this world to life.” Visiting Instructor of Technical Theatre Shea Glenn designed the set.
  • Costume crew — “helping the actors learn how to move in their corsets, and figuring out how to do costume changes.”
  • Props crew — these folks “purchase and make props—not easy for a period piece.”
  • Light crew — building lots of LED lights into the wall.
  • Sound designers — “making sure the audience can be completely immersed in the show and feel like they’re a part of what’s happening on stage.”

5. There’s a special talk before Thursday night’s performance of Silent Sky at BSC.

Silent Sky at BSC
James McKay plays fictional love interest Peter Shaw. Photo courtesy of Cameron Carnes.

 Dr. Duane Pontius, T. Morris Hackney Professor of Physics, will present a talk titled “Seeking a Standard Candle” at 7:10PM before the opening night performance, Thursday, January 23.

All ticket-holders are welcome.

“Scientific breakthroughs are made by a broad range of individuals, but most fade into history with passing time, leaving only the marquee names we all know. 

Silent Sky is a testament to several remarkable women whose achievements were critical to enlightening our understanding of the universe.

Dr. Duane Pontius, T. Morris Hackney Professor of Physics

What: Silent Sky, a January Exploration-term production by Birmingham Southern College theatre students
Where: Birmingham Southern College Theatre | The Underground
When: there are four performances:

  • Thursday, January 23, 7:30PM, with a talk beforehand at 7:10PM
  • Friday, January 24, 7:30PM
  • Saturday, January 25, 7:30PM
  • Sunday, January 26, 2:30PM

Admission: tickets are $15 per person, $10 for students. Ages 7 and up only, please.

Don’t miss Silent Sky at Birmingham Southern College Jan. 23-26, 2020. Get your tickets now.

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Sharron Swain
Sharron Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference

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