Arts theater review

Scientists fight patriarchy by discovering astronomical theories

This historical narrative gives a hopeful yet realistic account of women’s progress in science

The Women Who Mapped the Stars
Written by Joyce Van Dyke
Directed by Jessica Ernst
Central Square Theater
April 19–May 20

The Women Who Mapped the Stars brings to life four astronomers of the late 1800s who opened the doors for miraculous discoveries made by Cecilia Payne (Amanda Collins) while still making significant marks of their own on science. Throughout their struggles with both science and society, images of stars and data flashed on the stage, enhancing and dramatizing their scientific discoveries.

Underneath the portrayal of women in science, the play still focused exclusively on white astronomers from England or the U.S. It would have been a great addition to mention accomplishments made by, though not necessarily credited to, non-white astronomers working at observatories around the world. Despite the lack of diversity, the play did emphasize concepts to which almost anyone can relate. For example, when Antonia Maury (Christine Power) asks a mosquito on her hand, "Who appreciates you for what you are?" before peacefully shooing it away, she poses a question that affects every minority.

Interwoven between the narratives of these groundbreaking women were modern themes of diversity, intergenerational progress, minority struggles, and power differentials. In one scene, Henrietta Swan Leavitt (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) derives inspiration from her cross-stitching to better analyze and compare stars, leading to discoveries that cascaded to being able to estimate the distance between stars. In another scene, the four astronomers discuss the proper appearance a future female astronomer should have, exemplifying how women can perpetuate patriarchy as well.

The script used references to modern phenomena to lighten the mood when the astronomers discuss gender-based discrimination. Maury proposes that in the distant future of 1990, women will be paid equal rates to men, humoring the audience who knows that did not come true. In their frustration with cooking, the astronomers discuss a future where they will be able to call for a meal instead of cooking it, just like men are able to do, referencing modern food delivery apps.

The play is sprinkled with references to power dynamics, many of which still exist today. In one of the first scenes, Maury argues with Williamina Fleming (Becca Lewis) about the observatory director assigning her a menial task because she is a woman. Maury later declines to advocate for her classification system to be the international standard in fear that her appearance as a woman will discredit her work. In a depressing moment near the end of the performance, Payne removes the biggest discovery in her thesis, that stars are mostly hydrogen, after the esteemed Henry Norris Russell said that it was simply not true, which speaks to anyone who has had a research superior blindly throw out an idea.

The play ends looking toward the next generation. Dr. Payne is crowned Chair of Harvard Astronomy, hopefully creating a more welcoming community than the one she received, just like the four astronomers did for her. The universal struggles portrayed through these women reflect of how much has changed, and what issues persist, in our human endeavor to understand the universe.