A first-person account by actress Daisha Abdillahi, a junior acting major at Syracuse University Department of Drama
Getting into the character of Annie Easley for the world premiere of “Commanding Space: The Rise of Annie Easley and the Centaur Rocket” was not easy. For one, this is an entirely solo performance and two, it involves juggling between rehearsals, classes and performances.
But it’s a feat I would undertake all over again if I had to.
As it goes, every semester in the Syracuse University Department of Drama, we do general auditions for the upcoming semester’s shows. Backstory has always been an opportunity that Syracuse Stage allows SU students to undertake in the spring. It typically involves one actor portraying a historical figure that middle schoolers may not have learned much about (last year was Anne Frank and the Tuskegee Airmen).
This year, when Syracuse Stage announced it was about Annie Easley, I researched her before my audition because I hadn’t heard of her. After I got the part, I started finding more information about her, not only for my role as an actor but also because the play was not completely written yet and we were working with New York-based playwright, Stephanie Leary, to tell this story.
In rehearsal, after we all had done a great deal of research, director Joann Yarrow — also director of community engagement & education at Syracuse Stage — would ask Melanie Johnson (my understudy) and myself to improv a scene about Annie’s life. For example, Joann would say, “This is the scene where Annie is the first woman at NASA to wear pants for the first time. Go.” Melanie and I would play that scene out in front of Stephanie and she would go home that night and write a scene about it.
I had never worked with either Stephanie or Joann prior to this show. The experience was great and so different than any other show I’ve done before, partly because we spent a great deal of rehearsals creating and adjusting the play to fit our ideas.
Also, the experience performing for kids has been rewarding.
Every year, the Backstory program takes the show to elementary and middle schools around Syracuse, and I’ve performed for mixed crowds at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology (MOST), churches, Syracuse Stage and some other locations.
My favorite part of the show is the talkback when I get to interact with the kids. This offers a chance for them to ask both Annie and myself some really difficult questions. For instance, once a fifth grader asked me, “That boy who was on the newspaper during the show, who was he?” The student was referring to Emmett Till, and I wasn’t sure how to tell a group of fifth graders about a gruesome, horrible story like Till’s death without terrifying them at 9 a.m. in the morning. However, I felt like it’s a story that kids today need to know to help them understand the Civil Rights Movement and this time period that the show deals with.
My advice to the kids using Annie’s story would be to take her words to heart: “I can be anything I want to be.” This phrase has become my motto working on the show, and I think others can find it useful. Annie continued to believe in herself and work around those people that she couldn’t work with, that’s the kind of spirit I hope to impart to kids today.
This year we hope to take the play far and wide. Joann has been having me do photoshoots and recordings of the show. Hopefully, we can perform at different Theatre for Young Audiences conferences, and perhaps at the National Air & Space Museum and the NASA Goddard facility in my hometown, Washington, D.C. Those are some of my dreams. Like the dreams of these historical women in NASA. They were definitely reaching for the stars and they could have just as easily fallen, but they had their own brand of determination that kept them up even when everyone was trying to pull them down.
We talk about “hidden figures” when we talk about African Americans who work for NASA, but it’s important we talk about how they were kept hidden for so long. There’s a moment in the show where I have the audience join me in taking a photo, and when I reveal the picture, it’s actually a group of white men in suits.
Sometimes during the talkback, a student will think that I’m actually going to have a picture of them on the screen and they say “Hey, I thought I was going to be in that picture,” and I’ll say, “Well, now you know how Annie felt.” This moment actually happened in her life, where she was working on the Centaur team and she was airbrushed out of a photo they blew up to hang in the lobby. She was literally hidden from history.
It was so interesting when I started my research into Annie Easley that I found so many more “hidden figures” that have made tremendous strides in the STEM fields, particularly in NASA who were not recognized. We have Annie to thank for her advances in the space race. Not only were her calculations used for the Centaur rocket launch in 1963, but also for the Apollo missions (11 and 13). Those calculations are still being used today, and are known as the “workhorse of space.”
Every time I tell a friend or family member that I’m performing a one-woman show about an African-American human computer, they think I’m referring to one of the women in the film “Hidden Figures.” However, Annie’s story pre-dates those figures, pre-dates NASA itself.
The reason Annie was not depicted in that story is because it takes place in Langley, VA, whereas Annie worked in Cleveland, OH. In the film you also see the team working hard to get a man on the moon, in our show Annie and her team at NASA are just trying to get a rocket into orbit.
I think that in today’s world, women are sick and tired of living in a male dominated society, the only difference now is that we’re not sitting quietly anymore. We have come so far from this time period where our story is set, from Jim Crow and voting rights, but we still have work to do.
For me, my ambitions are to continue doing theater, but who knows what the future has in store for any of us. I am pretty good at numbers, not as good as Annie, but when I was in high school, I actually loved physics. So, when I’m working with the calculations in the show about P=MV, etc, it makes me happy.
Annie’s story has kept me busy for sure. Between school tours with Mikayla Hawkinson, the tour director, and classes, I also work at Syracuse Stage and am assistant directing another show in the department. So, some days I start at 6 a.m. and end by 10 p.m. But I love doing what I do, taking Annie around the county — I’ll be at Danforth Middle School Apr 23 — and hitching my rocket to the moon.
— As told to, and edited by, Lyle Michael, contributor to The Stand and marketing intern at Syracuse Stage