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‘My Lord, What a Night’: CATF world premiere to explore moment during the civil rights movemen

By Staff | Mar 30, 2019

Contemporary American Theater Festival Founder and Producing Director Ed Herendeen, left, talks about "My Lord, What a Night" with playwright Deborah Brevoort, during the Shepherdstown Sneak Peek on March 20 in the Marinoff Theater. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — With a twist on the African American spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning,” playwright Deborah Brevoort delves into an unexpected moment in the civil rights movement with her play, “My Lord, What a Night.”

The play, which is one of six hand-picked by Contemporary American Theater Festival Founder and Producing Director Ed Herendeen, will celebrate its world premiere this summer in Shepherdstown.

The five other plays that will be performed during the 2019 season, are: “Support Group for Men” by Ellen Fairey, “Wrecked” by Greg Callers, “A Welcome Guest: A Psychotic Fairy Tale” by Michael Weller, “Chester Bailey” by Joseph Dougherty and “Antonio’s Song/I Was Dreaming of a Son” by Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez. All of these works, according to Herendeen, share a similar mindset.

“I read about 115 new manuscripts that were submitted by literary agents,” Herendeen said, during the Shepherdstown Sneak Peek event in the Marinoff Theater on March 20. “I found myself being drawn to works that explored compassion and empathy. I selected repertory that will, in many ways, help us discuss where we are as human beings.

“Good theater helps us form our worldview — it’s a very strange art form,” Herendeen said. “If we do our job right, you’re not aware of yourself at all, you’re totally consumed with what is outside of yourself. Good theater invites us to sit in the dark with other human beings, and listen.”

While each play is chosen by Herendeen for a specific purpose, “My Lord, What a Night” stood out to him because of its focus on showing love, during a time when segregation was creating division throughout the United States.

“It’s about the friendship that took place in Princeton, New Jersey, between Albert Einstein and the great opera singer Marian Anderson,” Herendeen said, mentioning they met when Einstein invited her to stay at his home while she was in town, after finding out she was being inconvenienced because of her skin color. “She was denied lodging in a hotel, because she was black.”

According to Brevoort, the idea for this play came to her while reading.

“I have a lot of interests and I read widely in a number of areas, so I run into a lot of moments in history that pose a question for exploration,” Brevoort said, mentioning not all of her work is historically-based. “I’m always looking for the missing part of the story — the blank place.”

Brevoort’s love of books started in childhood, when her mother encouraged her curiosity in reading by buying banned books and giving them to her. Her mother’s support for the civil rights movement was also one of the reasons she wrote this play.

“My mom was very active in civil rights,” Brevoort said, mentioning a trip her mother took her on, to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., speak. “She said to me one day, ‘We’re going to go hear a great man.'”

Another reason Brevoort is personally invested in talking about the civil rights movement, is her African American husband, who is currently in Broadway’s production of “Choir Boy.” Brevoort said her husband has been racially profiled throughout his life, even though he avoided making an issue over the behavior — just like Anderson.

“The play really explores how you respond to racial profiling,” Brevoort said, mentioning Anderson’s choice to focus on her career and not engage with the civil rights movement, resulted in her being criticized by the African American community.

Brevoort explores this situation, by adding a civil rights leader, Mary Church Terrell, into the mix of historical characters who might have been present at the time in Princeton. She also allows Anderson to express herself through song, during the play.

In the end, Brevoort said filling the blank space in her retelling of history was a success.

“What happened, nobody knows, but we know it started a lifelong friendship between these two famous people,” Brevoort said. “Of course, they shared a love for music. We know it happened, we know they had a lifelong friendship, but we know nothing else. So it was a playwright’s dream.”