“A Magnificent Voice”

Marian Anderson, center, with Albert Einstein. (Marian Anderson Collection of Photographs, 1898-1992, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania)

Marian Anderson in Princeton

By Donald H. Sanborn III

“Everyone has a gift for something,” contralto Marian Anderson is quoted as saying, “even if it is the gift of being a good friend.” In 1937 a unique friendship was formed after Anderson (1897-1993) gave a recital at McCarter Theatre.

Because of segregation, Anderson as an African American was denied lodging at a hotel in Princeton. In response, Albert Einstein invited her to stay at his home — an invitation he had extended to Paul Robeson two years earlier.

The meeting of Anderson and Einstein is the subject of a play, My Lord, What a Night. Written by Deborah Brevoort, the play recently was presented by Ford’s Theatre. The play’s title is derived from Anderson’s 1956 autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning.

Anderson’s autobiography, in turn, takes its title from a spiritual whose text includes the line, “To wake the nations underground.” Given the singer’s eventual impact on the civil rights movement, the line is striking.

When Brevoort was 7, her mother gave her a copy of Anderson’s book. “I remember loving that autobiography,” she says. When the singer was on a list of subjects for a commission, Brevoort eagerly welcomed the idea of writing about her, in part because the research process would provide an opportunity to reread the volume. The playwright was particularly fascinated by the story of Einstein opening his home to Anderson, an act that “launched this lifelong friendship.”

“Complete Artistic Mastery”

The McCarter recital that occasioned the meeting with Einstein took place on April 16, 1937. In Einstein on Race and Racism (Rutgers University Press, 2005), Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor note, “Princeton Group Arts, an organization that provided African American youngsters with art instruction not available in their segregated Princeton school, sponsored Marian Anderson’s performance.”

Kosti Vehanen was Anderson’s accompanist for the recital, which included selections by Handel and Schubert. In I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton (Princeton University Press, 2017) Kathryn Watterson writes that the duo performed for a “standing-room only audience.”

In the Daily Princetonian, E.T. Cone ecstatically praised the concert in a review whose headline declared the performance “superlative.” Cone was in awe of Anderson’s “complete artistic mastery of a magnificent voice.”

“Seldom is a voice like this combined with such a perfect intellectual and emotional understanding of the music,” Cone writes. “Anderson’s vocal technique is unsurpassed in variety of color; contrast of range and marvelous effects in dynamics.”

But although the McCarter audience welcomed Anderson, the Nassau Inn “refused her a room,” Watterson writes. “When Albert Einstein heard about the insult, he invited Anderson to stay with his daughter and him in their house on Mercer Street.”

In Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2007) Walter Isaacson describes the physicist’s invitation as a “deeply personal as well as a publicly symbolic gesture.” Isaacson adds that whenever Anderson returned to Princeton, “she stayed with Einstein, her last visit coming just two months before he died.”

Felicia Curry as Marian Anderson and Christopher Bloch as Albert Einstein in the Ford’s Theatre October 2021 production of Deborah Brevoort’s “My Lord, What a Night.” (Photo by Scott Suchman)

“My Lord, What a Night”

Brevoort observes, “There are pictures of Einstein hanging around backstage at Carnegie Hall at Anderson’s various concerts; he loved her singing. So he was at the Princeton concert, and all we know is that he invited her to stay at his house. My play tries to fill in the details, of the conversations that took place that night.”

About the genesis of My Lord, What a Night, Brevoort explains that in 2015 “There was a Premiere Stages Liberty Live commission (from Liberty Hall Museum), to write a 45-minute play about an event that took place in New Jersey. There was a long list of topics that they wanted to consider, and Marian Anderson happened to be on that list.”

In 2015 the play was debuted at Premiere Stages at Kean University. Contemporary American Theater Festival presented it in 2019. Last February, Orlando Shakespeare Theater presented an online production; and in October, Ford’s Theatre offered it both in person and via (Broadway On Demand) streaming.

Reviewing the Ford’s Theatre production for District Fray, Nicole Hertvik describes the portrayal of Anderson as “restrained and conflicted,” and Einstein as a “firebrand.” When Brevoort is asked whether that description reflects what her research revealed about the personalities of her two protagonists, the playwright replies: “Absolutely.” Perusing historical records to research the play, Brevoort observed a fundamental difference between Einstein and Anderson.

“Einstein was famously vocal and active about civil rights issues,” the playwright observes, adding that this activism was greeted with the “consternation of Abraham Flexner and the Institute for Advanced Study, who would have preferred that Einstein keep his head down. Everything Einstein said made it into the headlines, because he was basically the most famous person in the world.”

Hertvik writes that as a character in Brevoort’s play, Flexner brings the perspective of the “assimilator. He admits to being embarrassed to be a Jew and he displays an obtuse indifference to the plight of African Americans.” Conversely, Mary Church Terrell — the other character in the play, “urges Anderson to use her celebrity for the greater good of all Black Americans,” Hertvik notes.

By contrast, Anderson “famously did not make political comments,” Brevoort continues. She observes that the singer was “opposed to being involved in political “issues — much to the consternation of the African American community, who wished that she would use her fame to speak on their behalf.”

As a dramatist Brevoort was fascinated by the fact that a close friendship developed despite this difference. “Both of them suffered discrimination,” the playwright says. “Einstein, obviously, had to flee Nazi Germany, and Anderson was dealing with the horrors of Jim Crow.” She reflects that hatred “affected both of them deeply, personally.”

“But they had diametrically opposed viewpoints as to how one responds in the face of hatred,” Brevoort observes. “Yet they became good friends. That’s the thing that really attracted me to the story — that difference, and the basis of that friendship.”

Anderson performing at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939 (Easter Sunday), in front of 75,000 spectators. Finnish accompanist Kosti Vehanen is on the piano. (Photo by the U.S. Information Agency)

Lincoln Memorial Concert

My Lord, What a Night “culminates with Anderson’s famed 1939 performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial,” writes Hertvik in her review. The performance “attracted 75,000 spectators of all races, including African Americans who had been unable to see her perform due to the segregationist policies of the time. Millions more listened at home.”

In 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to permit Anderson to sing a concert at Constitution Hall, due to a policy that excluded African American performers. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned in protest, and formed a committee to find a different venue.

Through FDR’s administration a concert was arranged to take place at the Lincoln Memorial. On April 9 (Easter Sunday) Anderson sang a selection that included “America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee).”

“The Lincoln Memorial concert forever changed the Black experience in America, because it was the moment where the civil rights issue broke through to the national audience,” says Brevoort. “Not only were 75,000 people at that concert, but it was broadcast on the radio. My mother remembers, as a child, sitting by the radio, listening to that concert.”

In 1936, Anderson had been the first African American to perform at the White House, an event at which a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in the audience. Twenty-seven years later, Anderson sang at the 1963 March on Washington.

Pointing to events such as the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, Brevoort adds that the concert established the National Mall as the site “and symbol of civil protest in the United States. To this day, when we march on Washington, we go to the National Mall, and we stand beneath the Lincoln Memorial. That is because of Marian Anderson.”

Anderson in 1940. (Photo by Carl Van Vechten)

Returning to Princeton

In 1943 the DAR did invite Anderson to sing for an integrated audience at Constitution Hall (even though the policy that had excluded her four years earlier did not end until 1952). The occasion was a benefit for the American Red Cross.

Jerome and Taylor write, “Despite her worldwide renown, it was not until January 1955 that Anderson was finally permitted to sing with New York’s Metropolitan Opera.” She became the first African American to do so, performing the part of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.

“That same month, Princeton’s Friendship Club brought her back for another concert at McCarter,” write Jerome and Taylor. She again stayed with Einstein, who died a few months later. Jerome and Taylor quote Anderson as writing: “I knew this was really good-bye.”

In 1959 Princeton University conferred the Doctor of Humanities honorary degree on Anderson. The website for the University’s Women’s Center notes that this made her the “first African American woman to receive such an honor from the college.”

Mitchell Jamieson’s 1943 mural, An Incident in Contemporary American Life, at the United States Department of the Interior Building depicts the scene of Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial. (Photo by Carol Highsmith)

“An Important Piece of History”

Brevoort hopes that My Lord, What a Night will “resurrect an important piece of history.” She soberly reflects, “The dilemma that Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein were facing that night … continues to this day. My hope is that, as we look at this historical drama set in 1937, we see how little we’ve actually changed.”

Racial justice is an issue that deeply affects the playwright on a personal level. Brevoort is married to Tony Award winning actor Chuck Cooper. She says that as an African American, Cooper has “endured everything that happened to Marian Anderson: racial profiling and racist incidents. The conversation that takes place in Einstein’s house is a conversation that my husband and I have had numerous times around our own dining room table. My Lord, What a Night is a historical drama about 1937, but the issue remains.”

Despite the contralto’s longtime resistance to being connected with political activism, Brevoort is unequivocal in defining her sociopolitical legacy. “Marian Anderson carried the civil rights issue into the ears of Americans, and into their hearts.”