Eartha Kitt recently paid a visit to Tucson, in the person of Dierdra McDowell.
By effectively channeling Kitt’s persona in a one-woman show entitled Down To Eartha, she distilled the essence of Kitt into a performance that was according to some at Tucson’s Invisible Theatre even more real than Eartha herself.
“I’m a cat,” said McDowell early in the performance, alluding to Kitt’s starring role as Catwoman in 1967 episodes of the TV show Batman. This role propelled her a career peak that turned out to be a poisoned chalice. When Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Johnson, decided to hold an all-female meeting at the White House in January 1968 about rising crime rates in America, Kitt was the only black person invited.
Suggestions from silly women at the meeting included one that flowers should be planted on America’s highways. Such sops to the grave issues at hand inflamed Kitt, which prompted her to deliver a stern speech to Lady Bird. After the seductive purring that infuses the first portion of the stage performance, McDowell (as Kitt) shows her claws in a powerful denunciation of the Vietnam War and how it was responsible for American crime.
As one person in the audience told me who lived through those times, and even met President Johnson, there was little to no connection between the War and crime. Mrs. Johnson was reportedly reduced to tears by Kitt’s diatribe, which McDowell delivered with powerful immediacy. “Kitt got what she deserved,” he told me, for this breach of decency and protocol.
So what did she get? Banishment to the hinterlands of the entertainment world. Kitt was out of work in the U.S. for 10 years as her contracts for appearances were cancelled. The President was so incensed that the CIA launched an investigation of her; years later the CIA dossier was revealed to contain false and defamatory information.
Whether you sympathise with Kitt or not, McDowell’s performance shines a spotlight on a raw nerve in American history, one that involves not only the anti-war movement but the role of women in America. What are the dangers of speaking truth to power? That is the essence of her message, one that resonates even more strongly in the here and now in the America of 2019.
Down to Eartha was performed as the 2019 closer for the Invisible Theatre in a special 2-day engagement. In January 2020 there will be another 2-day engagement: Vivian’s Music, 1969. Written by Tucson playwright Monica Bauer, this is sure to be a smashing start to the New Year.
Visit the website: www.invisibletheatre.com