At Press Night for The Women Who Mapped the Stars, playwright Joyce Van Dyke stands with two cast members: Sarah Newhouse (in the center) who played Annie Jump Cannon, and Christine Power (on the right) who played Antonia Maury. Photo by N. Kalajian

Van Dyke’s Newest Play, ‘The Women Who Mapped the Stars,’ Brightens Cambridge Skies

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By Nancy Kalajian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The Nora Theatre Company’s “The Women Who Mapped the Stars,” just finished a month-long run at the Central Square Theater, as part of the Brit d’Arbeloff Women in Science Production Series, and the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a Central Square Theatre and MIT program that creates and presents plays that deepens public engagement and artistic and emotional experiences with science.

An engaging tribute to the power of women to look beyond time and circumstance to further our understanding of the universe, playwright Joyce Van Dyke’s world premiere of “The Women Who Mapped the Stars” hits the mark with plenty of factual scientific information, winning dialogue, clever timing and quick wit. Aspiring characters, ranging from young in age to the more experienced, interact in a convincing style under good direction with simple but effective sets.

Working at Harvard College Observatory in the late 1890s, the fervent accomplishments of five hard-working “women who mapped the stars” were kept in the shadows even though their contributions to astronomy were, frankly, astronomical. Numerous struggles for women in the workplace — from inequality in pay to not having the same rights as men — were depicted in the play. In one instance, women weren’t allowed to use telescopes in the workplace but men were. Then there was the man who years later took credit for a scientific discovery that had been initially made by a woman.

The Poet’s Theatre and director Jessica Ernst provided early script development assistance to Van Dyke during four workshops over two years. Some of the greatest writers were quoted when appropriate to the dialogue including Shakespeare’s “Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold!” from The Merchant of Venice. Fastidious research was conducted at various scientific institutions and libraries.

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“Some of the research was done at the Center for Astrophysics where we were able to look at the actual notebooks kept by the women astronomers in the play, as well as photos, and the equipment they used,” shared Van Dyke, continuing, “Also the Harvard Archives which has collections of the women’s papers. I also read some of the scientific papers that these women published, as well as books and articles by historians of science who wrote about them, and most recently Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe.”

Armenian audiences may be more familiar with Van Dyke’s earlier works, such as “Daybreak” (earlier titled “Departed/a dream play”) about two women survivors of the Armenian Genocide, or “A Girl’s War.”

“The play is different from my earlier work, but I see connections too. Women and their struggles and their relationships are center stage. Time and space are fluid. The plot is not linear. Characters conjure up those from another time that they need to interact with. Because it was going to be a play about the work of these women at the Observatory, it had no overlap with my own family history. But Daybreak is the only play I’ve written about my own family history. The Women Who Mapped the Stars is not connected to my Armenian roots, but it is deeply connected to my experience as a woman and to the struggle of women to do meaningful work. In spite of all the research I needed to do in order to write this play, I wrote it faster than any other. At some level I believe it was already in me,” Van Dyke remarked.

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