‘My Lord, What a Night’: A singer, a scientist and a night to remember

Erika LaVonn played Marian Anderson, with Joel Leffert as Albert Einstein, in "My Lord, What a Night."

PHOTOS BY MIKE PETERS

Erika LaVonn played Marian Anderson, with Joel Leffert as Albert Einstein, in “My Lord, What a Night.”

Deborah Brevoort’s new play “My Lord, What a Night” had a very limited run last month — just five shows at the Liberty Hall Museum in Union, Oct. 13-16, as part of Kean University’s Premiere Stages series. But I hope it will be presented in New Jersey again, maybe in expanded form. Brevoort was commissioned to write this one-acter by Premiere Stages’s Liberty Live program, which develops plays about some aspect of New Jersey’s history, and Brevoort had the great idea to zero in on the events of April 16, 1937, in Princeton.

On that day, the great African-American singer Marian Anderson gave a concert at the McCarter Theatre, and was denied a hotel room at the town’s Nassau Inn. Albert Einstein, who was then teaching at Princeton’s Institute for Advance Study, attended the concert, and gallantly offered Anderson the guest room in his home. Anderson accepted.

The play, directed by Kel Haney, begins with Einstein (Joel Leffert) and Anderson (Erika LaVonn) arriving in Einstein’s gloriously cluttered abode, with books stacked haphazardly, everywhere, and the waste basket surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper. There’s a big hole in Einstein’s sweater, and his hair is a wild mop. Anderson looks like a creature from another planet, with her elegant dress and coat, big jewelry and fur stole.

Einstein is still angry at the “indignity” she suffered. Anderson says she’s used to it; she’s just surprised it happened in Princeton. Einstein says Princetonians aren’t unenlightened, they’re just rich.

Einstein’s a teetotaler (“alcohol is a recipe for stupidity, and we humans are stupid enough”), but offers her tea, and some of his prized Swiss chocolate.

From left, Joel Leffert, Mitch Greenberg, Erika LaVonn and Lizan Mitchell in "My Lord, What a Night."

From left, Joel Leffert, Mitch Greenberg, Erika LaVonn and Lizan Mitchell in “My Lord, What a Night.”

Their friendly conversation is interrupted by reporters on the lawn, and the arrival of Institute for Advance Study head Abraham Flexner (Mitch Greenberg), who suggests that Anderson stay at “the colored YMCA,” to avoid a scandal. Anderson seems to be open to that suggestion, but Einstein insists she stay.

Things are further complicated by the arrival of NAACP member Mary Church Terrell (Lizan Mitchell), who has suffered through her own outrageous racist incident in Princeton earlier this night, and argues that Anderson should use what happened at the Nassau Inn to rally the public behind the anti-discrimination cause. Anderson resists; “singing is my contribution,” she says.

And so the four go back and forth, debating the best course of action. Even Flexner, the most unsympathetic character, is given a chance to explain himself, saying that a controversy could result in decreased donations to the Institute, and the smaller his budget is, the less he can do for Jewish scholars, like Einstein, trying to flee Europe, with World War II looming.

Eventually, Anderson decides to stay, and grants Terrell’s request to sing a song: the spiritual, “My Lord, What a Morning.” It’s a tough assignment for LaVonn, since Anderson is such a legend, but she pulls it off, and her warm, uplifting performance becomes the play’s emotional peak.

There is, obviously, a lot packed into this 60-minute play, which even hints at Anderson’s future performance at the March on Washington in 1963. If it were stretched out to 90 or 100 minutes — maybe with a few scenes of events earlier in the evening? — perhaps it could become even more satisfying.

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