Before there was "Hidden Figures," the blockbuster movie and book by Margot Lee Shetterly, there was "Determination of Azimuth," an operetta about the life of mathematician Katherine Johnson and the Apollo 10 mission staged in 2015 by the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.
As the writers of "Determination of Azimuth," we were overjoyed to sit in a sold-out cinema and see a major motion picture about a story we feel so much affection for. The success of this movie has been tremendous and uplifting. Katherine Johnson's life story has inspired us both since Heather first encountered it while teaching middle-schoolers about African-American scientists. Johnson was central to a story we all know—the moon landing—and yet completely hidden from view.
The differences between our show and the movie were fascinating—especially given the fact we consulted all the same source material. Just like the "Hidden Figures" writers, Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, we worked with the historians at Langley Research Center, consulted the Apollo archives at NASA headquarters, and contacted Shetterly about her nascent manuscript. In fact, while we never worked with the writers of "Hidden Figures" directly, the archivist at NASA HQ remembered us and passed along a recorded performance of "Determination of Azimuth." Even with all these commonalities, our scripts are remarkably different, and this has as much to do with the medium as it does our background and occupations.
Live theater can allow for more elaborate writing, intimate audience engagement, and risk taking. Where "Hidden Figures" follows very traditional Hollywood visual depictions, "Determination of Azimuth" was highly experimental, spanning two simultaneous timelines with staging that incorporated ground control, Johnson, a team of West Area Computers, and a video feed of astronauts. Actors entered the audience's space, moved through time, performed movement and math, all while the constant music composed by Andrew Bernstein built tension as the play traveled through the life of Katherine Johnson but also followed the path of the Apollo 10 mission, from launch to re-entry.
"Determination of Azimuth" emphasized the function and significance of the geometry and calculations and relied heavily on primary sources, including Johnson's academic publications, for the script. Song lyrics were recited directly from the ground-breaking paper co-authored by Ted Skopinski and Johnson ("NASA Technical Note D-233: Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position," 1960). Dialogue in the script was taken almost entirely from published interviews, and communication between astronauts and engineers came directly from archived transcripts of the Apollo missions.
"Hidden Figures" offers much of the same compelling material, but by breaking from the actual quotes and biographies in an effort to compress, they eliminate some of the power of these stories. In particular, we were very disappointed the writers of "Hidden Figures" did not use the classic, oft-quoted line by Johnson: "When they went to the moon the first time everybody was concerned about how we were going to get them there. But putting rockets into space is the easy part. . . . rocket scientists launch men off the planet. But we mathematicians, we get them back home." Instead, they used Taraji P. Henson's uninspiring closer: "We're already there, sir."
As two white writers (also like "Hidden Figures"), we realized the complications we faced trying to give voice to African-American characters. We struggled, wondering if we should write this, but we felt strongly this was a story that needed to be told. To help us craft a respectful script we worked closely with the actors, fellow writers of color, and volunteers from Baltimore Racial Justice Action to set the right tone. The writers of "Hidden Figures" faced the same challenges, but their script seemed tone deaf in certain areas.
A singular criticism we have is the heroic portrayal of the fictional character of Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner), an amalgam of three historic individuals. We were frustrated that so many of the best lines fell to this character when interviews with Johnson reveal a wit and breadth of knowledge that would have carried those scenes handily. She was a forceful presence in the workplace, confident in her skills.
In fact, the entire plotline showing her running between buildings to use the colored restroom is fictional. This incident did happen to Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) once, but Johnson (Henson) stalwartly used the one ladies room in her work area. The entire plotline seemed poised to make Kevin Costner's character a bathroom-sign-bashing hero—a particular frustration since it is a corruption of actual events. Early in the years of the West Computers at Langley, an African-American computer, Miriam Mann, would nearly daily remove the "Colored Computers" sign from a cafeteria table, until eventually the signs stopped being replaced. To have this clever symbol of protest transferred from another unsung "hidden figure" to the white male power figure seemed shameful to us.
The entire Mary Jackson storyline was disappointing. The film dropped hints about her engineering contributions (the problematic retro package) and characters converse about her work; but while we see her as a student, an assistant, a friend, a wife, and a mother, we never actually see her in her role as an engineer. We also resented the pejorative treatment her husband Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge) receives. The script treats him as a potentially threatening, angry black man. Fellow characters deride his interest in the civil rights movement and basically tell him to calm down. It seemed another unnecessary stroke of white-washing to have his legitimate ire rebuffed and reminded us of the dismissive language we heard used in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and members.
Still, we heartily recommend "Hidden Figures"—we just wish it lived up to its potential. These women's stories are captivating and heroic and deserve to be celebrated. We would implore everyone to follow it up by reading Shetterly's book to better understand history and the lives the movie compresses. Most importantly, we see the differences between our scripts as a reminder of why it is so important to support diverse voices in theater and film and to support artistic organizations (like BROS) that will take risks—like letting random inspired scientists frame stories for the stage.
Eric Church is a game designer with extensive experience in multimedia historical storytelling and Dr. Heather Graham is an organic geochemist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. "Determination of Azimuth" was their first foray into script writing but they have both been active as theater craft volunteers with the Baltimore Rock Opera Society for four years.