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Faces of Denver: Mark Acito

Marc Acito is a playwright and librettist best known for his novel How I Paid for College and his collaboration with George Takei on the Broadway musical Allegiance, which addresses the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. His latest work, “Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs,” will have its world premiere at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, under the direction of Helen R. Murray. The play portrays the friendship of African American vocalist Marian Anderson (Mary Louise Lee) and Jewish physicist Albert Einstein (Jordan Leigh). While Acito currently resides in New York City, he has deep roots in Colorado. He earned a B.A. from Colorado College, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2009, and sang several seasons with Opera Colorado. He collaborated with music director Andrew Fischer, who also serves as Vocal Music and Music Theory teacher for Littleton Public Schools to create this “musical play” that runs from February 21 to March 15.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Jessie Hanson: This is a new iteration of this production, right? It’s been produced previously, but you’ve added new elements.

Marc Acito: Yes, this is a reimagining of the play that Helen Murray both directed and produced at The Hub Theater in Fairfax, Virginia. But we’re still calling this a world premiere because it’s so significantly reimaged that it’s a different beast. There’s a significant amount of music that has been added because after watching the version in Virginia, I was able to see how I wanted to use music to better tell the story.

JH: The music is from Marian Anderson’s songbook?

MA: The music is all associated with Marian Anderson. It’s music from Franz Schubert and African American spirituals. Very little of the music is performative. It all takes place in her “inside voice,” what I like to think of as the mindscape. Everybody sings in this production, including Einstein. I’m almost exclusively a librettist of musicals, so it doesn’t surprise me that my plays would operate the same way. Because naturalism, to me, doesn’t capture the full spectrum of the human experience, this an experiment to try to find ways to better communicate what it’s like to be inside these people, subjectively [and] expressionistically.

JH: I think it would be difficult to convey to the audience that the music is happening inside the character’s head, and that the other people in the play either can or cannot see or hear this…that’s a lot of moving parts.

MA: Yes, but Leonard Bernstein said, “Don’t fall off the first rung of the ladder.” Go big or go home!

JH: This is a story that I know nothing about. I’m a fairly literate person in American society and I’ve never heard of it. How did you come across this story to adapt and develop?

MA: I was and still am a journalist and I have a nose for a story. In the course of doing some Googling, I found this nugget of information that Marian Anderson had stayed at the home of Albert Einstein and I was like, ‘What?! How come I don’t know about this?’ I started digging and discovered that in 1937, she was invited to stay with him because she couldn’t get a hotel room in Princeton. When I read her memoir, there’s a reference about visiting him shortly before he died.  Elsewhere there are references that she stayed there multiple times whenever she was in Princeton, so they very clearly had a real friendship.

JH: What part was the most fun about developing this piece?

MA: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Nobody’s ever asked me that. This going to sound nerdy, but the most fun has been searching for the right metaphor to describe the science. I’ve never been adept in the sciences and maybe that’s why I’m interested. It’s an attempt to try to understand. I really had to hunt for the right analogy. I can’t say that I’ve succeeded, but it’s been so much fun trying. I’m reminded of the scene in the Jodie Foster movie Contact. She goes through a wormhole and when she arrives on the other side, she says, “They should have sent a poet” [to describe the other world]. I get that.

JH: Marian Anderson was a musician and music a big part of this work. Did you have any inspiration to include Einstein’s medium, any part of his work as a physicist?

 There’s a lot of physics in the show. If I’ve done my job right, you’ll be able to leave the theater and go to a cocktail party and explain [the theory of] relativity in its simplest understanding. And the play also hints at string theory, as well. There’s definitely some physics there. The average person will also walk away with an increased awareness of what it means to be a classical musician. The reason I felt comfortable taking on not just a titanic figure, but a black woman in America, as a character was because I had trained and worked as an opera singer. I know what it is to be a singer and that was a way I could find a way into Marian that resonated with me..

JH: A lot of the characters that you write and the work that you do has to do with people who are marginalized or oppressed in some way. You are a white man in America, which comes with a lot of privilege. How does being in that position of privilege let you talk about people who are othered and how do you do that in a way that is respectful of their stories. How are you the person that gets to speak for those groups?

That’s something that I wrestle with every day. Part of it is the collaborative nature of theater. I wouldn’t ever presume to write a solely African American story, but because this is the story of a black woman and a white man, I felt like I had at least 50% of a way-in. [Also,] the understanding of Marian professionally [as a musician] gave me some insight. It’s partly collaborating with the right people to work on the material and getting sensitivity reads from [those] people. That’s all part of the process, [getting] black directors and dramaturgs along the way to read the material and say, “You’re off here. You’re missing the point. Your privilege is showing.” [Working on Allegiance], I had an Asian-Canadian director, an Asian-American composer, and a room full of people who could keep me honest. I felt like I had enough people to hold my feet to the fire and ensure that [the work] spoke accurately to their experience.

Part of it, too, is that I personally never felt safe in American until gay marriage became the law of the land. I feel like I have at least the compassion and personal experience of what it means to be oppressed. I’m very aware of the fact that walking through the world, I have advantages by virtue of the way that I can present myself, but I don’t pass the “Hitler test.” If the Nazis came to power tomorrow, I’m getting rounded up. I’m on the list. Right now, I’m safe. For now. But Matthew Shepard was not too long ago.

The beautiful thing about Allegiance was that I was often the only white guy in the room. I found that so stimulating. At this point in my life, most white Americans remind me of someone I’ve already met. I’m very eager to interact with people whose perspective is different than my own. It’s not only the right thing to do: it’s the far more interesting thing to do. This material, by crossing these divides, has allowed me to not presume to tell someone else’s story, but at least allows me an entry point into another person’s experience, into their world and try to find that shared humanity.

Helen [Murray] is a white woman directing this play, but it’s been developed with input from black theater professionals along the way. It was very important to me that our music director was a person of color because I felt very comfortable with the classical music side of the equation, but to start to explore the African-American spirituals, I want[ed] someone for whom [that music] was part of their life experience. We found this remarkable music director, Andrew Fischer, who works in musical theater, is African American, who has the classical [music] chops, and is somebody who can play seven different roles. He’s been an enormous find, with [developing] this material and as someone who can keep me honest.

JH: Your work deals with marginalized people. Was this piece different because, while the main characters are marginalized, they’re also both in positions of power. Einstein was a professor; Anderson was a celebrity. Does that influence how they deal with their realities?

MA: Absolutely. What they both wrestle with in the second act is their responsibility to both their communities and humanity at large. They were people who were thrust into political roles that neither of them sought. [Anderson] did not think of herself as an activist. She wanted to simply be judged as an artist. But she felt the responsibility [of activism] and she felt it as a burden her entire life.  She took a lot of criticism from the NAACP for not doing more. Same with Einstein. He famously wrote a letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the possibility of the Germans getting the atom bomb and was a major influence in accelerating that process, which resulted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a pacifist, that was a responsibility that really tormented him the rest of his life. I do write about marginalized people, but I also tend to write about extraordinary people. They’re people who are often sidelined, but they’re people who are extraordinary. There was an irrepressible brilliance about them that allowed them to prevail.

JH: Are there any Easter Eggs in this production that the audience might be able to find?

 MA: Albert Einstein didn’t wear socks. You’ll see that he’s not [wearing them in the play]. Now that I say that, I gotta check that [Jordan Leigh] isn’t wearing socks. I’ll have to look [at rehearsal] tonight to make sure that they’re not putting socks on him.

Jessie Hanson Columnist and \"Backstage\'s Bon Vivant\"

Jessie Hanson lives and works in Denver and couldn't be happier about it. Like the best-possible kind of Jekyl-and-Hyde scenario, she splits her life between science and storytelling. During the day, she performs clinical diagnostics and messes around with test tubes. At night, she performs behind the mic as a standup comedienne, in the air as a circus aerialist, and in rhinestones as burlesque dancer. She begrudges the hyper-inflated cost of a decent pair of false eyelashes. When she's not on stage, she sweating it out as an endurance athlete in triathlons and marathons across the West. She begrudges the hyper-inflated cost of a decent pair of running shoes. She's thrilled to be on board with OnDenver and writing about science, comedy, circus, athletics, and general fun on the Front Range!

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