Freedom has always been an ambiguous ideal. Becoming living symbols for freedom, even for the iconic Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein, was fraught with fear and self-doubt, courage and conviction. My Lord, What a Night tells the story—in imagined musings on historically real events in Princeton, New Jersey, circa late 1930s—of the friendship between these two powerful voices for freedom. Their deep commitment to human rights and a shared love of music would be the catalysts to challenge the forces of the day that would deny it.
My Lord, What a Night by Deborah Brevoort and directed by Sheldon Epps is Ford’s Theatre’s first in-person production “in 566 days” said Artistic Director Paul R. Tetreault welcoming the opening night audience. “Ford’s Theatre is back!”
Christopher Bloch as Albert Einstein, Felicia Curry as Marian Anderson, Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Mary Church Terrell, and Michael Russotto as Abraham Flexner are a power cast of local talent. The finest of acting in My Lord, What a Night with some of the best pros in the DMV.
Albert Einstein’s study is the setting, following a concert by Marian Anderson in Princeton when she is denied lodging at a local inn because of race and Einstein invites her to spend the night at his home.
Scenic design by Meghan Raham erects Einstein’s study filled with a wall of real but floating books evocative of the imagined evening at the home of the brilliant physicist. Costume design by Karen Perry is the somewhat matronly but fashionably dignified dressing of the day for Anderson and Terrell.
The voices of reporters continually camped outside Einstein’s home are plausibly audible with sound design by John Gromada and vocals by Eric Hissom, Lawrence Redmond, and Stephen F. Schmidt.
Thematically focal to My Lord, What a Night is deciding what viewpoint and what voice holds the most potential for social change. Is it the tactical assertiveness of Mary Church Terrell, civil rights activist and suffragist?
Or the seeming reticence of Marian Anderson, who vociferously prefers to use the power of music and her representation of personal respect and dignity?
Is it Einstein’s fighting against a strengthening Nazi regime with his pleas to FDR to thwart Germany’s rise to power and his urging the U.S. to create the first atom bomb to achieve peace?
Or does overlooking prejudice and discrimination serve a better purpose by remaining at the table at whatever cost, as argued by Abraham Flexner, head of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study?
Food for thought and deep perspectives in this well-heeled production.
Each character challenges the other to take a stand for civil rights and social justice. Each chooses a different path. Each symbolizes a different means to the same end.
My Lord, What a Night lumbers somewhat slowly through a two-year period in the lives of Anderson and Einstein and very deliberately conveys the stakes involved in making choices for change.
The arc rises when it’s apparent that Marian Anderson does choose to symbolize something larger to the world. But only on her own terms. She does embrace being a symbol of freedom, “using music as a powerful weapon,” but prefers to fight for something as opposed to fighting against something.
This denouement is also the play’s aha moment—the realization that social change and changemakers can have many faces and different ways to achieve the same victories over racial and religious discrimination.
The point is to take a stand.
It takes a while for the storyline to get there, but in the interim, the wonderful Felicia Curry displays her powerful voice, singing “My Lord, What a Morning” a cappella to an impatient Mary Church Terrell, who wants to use the power of the press with Marian’s voice.
We also get to enjoy Christopher Bloch’s humble and somewhat absent-minded bumbling as the world’s most famous physicist. On the hot-blooded side of the freedom fence are Franchelle Stewart Dorn’s feisty Mary Church Terrell and Michael Russotto’s blustering cynicism as Flexner.
The climax comes in the very last moments when Marian Anderson sings on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after Eleanor Roosevelt intervenes and defies the Daughters of the American Revolution, who refuse to allow Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall.
With the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR, and Black Civil Rights leaders and organizations, Marian Anderson sang to a crowd of some 75,000 in an open-air concert on April 9, 1939, that has been etched forever into American history.
My Lord, What a Night saves the best for the very last.
Sitting in the Ford’s Theatre, an auditorium perfectly suited in time and place, gazing up at the box where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, as a curtained graphic projection with the looming image of the Lincoln Memorial descends, is almost emotionally overwhelming.
Marian Anderson steps forward in that famous full-length mink coat and with the fervor and the dignity of a living legend sings the first stanza of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
This is the very moment when My Lord, What a Night becomes a truly thrilling production.
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes with no intermission
My Lord, What a Night plays through October 24, 2021, at Ford’s Theatre – 511 10th Street NW, Washington, DC, and streams on-demand from October 15 to November 4, 2021. To purchase in-person tickets ($18–$68) or streaming tickets ($16 per person), call 888-616-0270 or go online. (Streaming tickets go on sale on October 15.)
For Ford’s Theatre’s COVID-19 Health and Safety policies, click here.