By Matt Kyle | Assistant News Editor
“Silent Sky,” the upcoming production at the Waco Civic Theatre, tells the true story of Henrietta Leavitt, an astronomer from the early 1900s who broke gender barriers and made several major scientific discoveries.
Despite Leavitt’s impact on astronomy, her story is not very well known, which the performers at the Waco Civic Theatre hope to change. The play is set to run for two weekends, from Oct. 28 to Oct. 30, then from Nov. 3 to Nov. 6. Tickets for the performances can be purchased here.
Melissa Green, the play’s director, said many people don’t know about the true story of the play and the contributions Leavitt and two other astronomers featured in the play, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, made to science.
“Their story really didn’t come to light until the 1970s, when some research finally came out,” Green said. “That’s sad, but it’s also kind of amazing. Finally, people know about Katherine Johnson and the hidden figures that helped get man to the moon. Katherine got to see that before she died, but these women didn’t. They didn’t have families, so their legacy kind of died with them for several years. Until this story came out.”
Leavitt’s story begins when she came to Harvard to work as a human computer and wasn’t allowed to use the Harvard telescope. She was only allowed to log stars that others discovered, but Leavitt made a discovery that allowed astronomers to measure the distances up to 20 million light years away, which has had a major impact on the field of astronomy.
Green said Leavitt’s discoveries paved the way for many astronomers after her, and still has an impact today.
“If it wasn’t for her discoveries, Einstein wouldn’t have written the theory of relativity, Hubble wouldn’t have done his telescope to give us the images,” Green said. “The new images that just came out of the stars, the very clear galaxy photos. All of that work is based on the foundations these women made at Harvard.”
Jamie Coblentz, who plays the lead role of Henrietta Leavitt, said she was surprised she had gotten the part. She recently moved to Waco and said she came to the Civic Theatre simply to meet more people passionate about theater.
“I’m a theater teacher, I was hoping to make connections and get down to the theater scene,” Coblentz said. “I was really auditioning just to audition and maybe meet some people.”
Coblentz said she is excited to portray Leavitt due to her being such an important person. She also said she relates to Leavitt, which made it easy to get into character.
“She and I share a lot of similarities,” Coblentz said. “The show itself deals with the struggle that she has, of following her passions and a lot of the family trauma she goes through throughout the play. She and I have that in common, and I love how she meets every obstacle with optimism.”
Laura Meier-Marx, a 1992 Baylor alumna, plays Williamina Fleming in the play, who was the curator of the Harvard observatory at the time. She said her character helped set the stage for Leavitt, and the two ended up becoming great friends.
“That’s part of the joy of the story,” Meier-Marx said. “It’s not necessarily just what these women did in a time period where women were not recognized for that kind of stuff. They were their own little family. It was a really touching story.”
In an effort to maintain scientific accuracy, Baylor geosciences lab coordinator and amateur astronomer Sharon Browning consulted on the production. She said she looked over the script and instructed the actors on the correct pronunciations of scientific terms and defined other terms for the cast.
Browning said this is part of the “outreach” the Baylor science departments do in order to promote “informal education” about different scientific studies, often at places like the Mayborn Museum.
Green said the story of the play is female-centric, which is heightened by the number of women in the play’s cast and crew.
“It is a story about women,” Green said. “There are four women in the cast and only one man. As a matter of fact, our artistic team is two women and a man as well.”
Coblentz said she is thrilled to be a part of the show in order to tell Leavitt’s story and inspire the next generation of astronomers.
“For me, there’s a freedom in it,” Coblentz said. “Little girls who come to the show will hopefully learn the lesson that if they put their mind to it, there’s nothing they can’t accomplish.”