Marc Acito’s Secrets of the Universe depicts how, in 1937, our country’s most brilliant mind, Albert Einstein, befriended the one and only Marian Anderson when she had been denied a hotel room because of her race.
In today’s New Jack era of increasingly blatant intolerance and overt racism it’s important to see how segregation has ruled the nation, and was not just relegated to the Jim Crow south.
The play opens as Sasha Olinick as Einstein and his assistant (Mindy Shaw) await the arrival of their guest. Anderson’s accompanist Kosti arrives carrying luggage galore. When Anderson finally enters, Kosti and the professor’s assistant are still lugging in baggage. The image is startling– two whites committed to manual labor for a black artist who can’t stay in the city’s hotel highlights the absurdity of the racist situation. Once the characters start lugging in a trunk, Einstein playfully asks if she’s moving in? The quips flow easily in this enjoyable world premiere that tackles physics, science, art and faith through two iconic figures of the century.
Lolita Marie plays Anderson with a wholesome weariness filled with an underlying strength that belies her quiet yet forceful demeanor. Olinick is a splendid Einstein (carefully pronounced by all with the extra “sh” articulation), shuffling about with an absent-minded gaze when lost in thought but piercingly focused in discussion. The two recognize the cruel injustice of racism but both are strong-willed survivors and make the best of it. They share stories of hardship and persecution. Anderson makes it clear that while she’s respected all over the world, the constant relegation to second class citizenship in her own country is soul-shattering. Afterwards, Anderson’s rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee” is near heartbreaking in the play’s backdrop.
Brian Keith MacDonald, Mindy Shaw, Jonathan Del Palmer play the ensemble characters with energy and care. What Shaw can do with a well placed look is noteworthy. MacDonald as the accompanist performs several passages very nicely and he portrays the character Kosti with a layered and leveled approach. He also delivers a fine turn as FDR with a hint that even the great one may have had his fancy for ladies, including Anderson.
Secrets of the Universe (and other Songs)
closes July 29, 2018
Details and tickets
Sprinkling historical figures throughout the scenes helped set the context, although the depictions of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Bethune were too spastic to make their points. Jonathan Del Palmer delivers a nice turn as several other characters, though, Anderson’s slave grandfather “who followed the drinking gourd” to freedom and Jackie Robinson of the Dodgers.
Acito sheds light on the mysteries of the cosmos and relativity, for even the science and math-challenged, in playful and fun ways. The composition of atoms is grade school fodder now but Einstein’s atomic theories and mass-energy formulas revolutionized physics in 1905. He frets that his incredible atomic energy theory would fall into the hands of Germans, only to be crestfallen that Americans used it to develop and launch atomic weapons slaughtering thousands in 1946.
The script also depicts the physicist as an isolated loner who was more comfortable in abstract physics theory than with people. He was notoriously disheveled, his gastric ailments gave him loads of flatulence, and his social ineptness made him quirky, awkward and prone to uncensored language, including racial jargon and off-color jokes. Nothing is explained away or excused, just observed in recognizing that the ongoing journey of a brilliant mind included social development as well.
Anderson too had her share of missteps. While the script shows her strength and fortitude in dealing with racist conditions, standing regal in the face of unrelenting prejudice, on the domestic front she also deals with the dalliances of her charming and charismatic husband. In an in your face moment, when she finally has an opportunity to relieve herself since the bathrooms are segregated, even then, she’s confronted by reflections and ghosts of degradation. As she confides to “Albert” she’s mainly comfortable nestled in the bend of a piano while his safe place is among his precious physics formulations. The two of them sitting side by side, holding hands, quietly confiding and sharing their thoughts and reflections about God and life is a treasured and lasting image.
Kristin A. Thompson adjusts the lighting to soften into a warm amber glow for the somber intimate moments, brightens the flashback memories and fills the ceiling with infinite stars of the universe. The nicely functional set by Betsy Zuck has a sturdy desk stacked with files, books and papers on one side and a piano center stage. A swoosh of fabric along the ceiling can be clouds or even the Milky Way.
The second act could use more dramatic tension to keep up the edge and energy of the first, but the production shines. The message that these two amazing souls maintained a friendship over the coming years of racial and social unrest is a marvelous comfort in these starkly divided times.
Secrets of the Universe (and other Songs) by Marc Acito . Director: Helen R. Murray . Cast–Lolita Marie, Sasha Olinick, Brian Keith MacDonald, Mindy Shaw, Jonathan Del Palmer . Scenic Design: Betsy Zuck . Costume Design: Jane Fink . Lighting Design: Kristin A. Thompson . Sound Design: Matthew R. Nielson . Production Stage Manager: Allison Poms . Produced by Hub Theater, a Co-Production with the Jewish Community theater of Northern Virginia . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.