Sunday Morning Michael Dale: LBJ, The CIA and Eartha Kitt

Dierdra McDowell's Down To Eartha depicts a day when the star exercised her First Amendment rights at The White House and her career was nearly destroyed.

By: Feb. 27, 2022
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One of the things I cherish about living in New York...

...and regularly sampling from its enormous output of live theatre productions is that you never know when you're going to wander into a tiny out-of-the-way venue where people plunk down a small amount of cash for tickets and see a modestly financed show that even most people in the theatre community have never heard of that offers a moment of absolutely thrilling drama.

And one of the things I cherish about having this public platform on BroadwayWorld is the opportunity to tell people about it.

So here we go...

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  LBJ, The CIA and Eartha Kitt
Dierdra McDowell

By 1968, with her hit recording of Santa Baby, numerous TV variety show performances and a few appearances as Catwoman on the popular Batman series, most of the country knew Eartha Kitt as that comical temptress with the purring voice.

Fewer knew of her being conceived by the rape of her mother and being rejected and abused throughout her childhood, nor as someone who has spent much of her adult life as an activist working on behalf of youths living in poverty.

So it's no surprise that in January of 1968, most of the country was shocked to see headlines telling of her remarks at a White House luncheon to discuss the topic of crime and juvenile delinquency hosted by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. When called upon to speak, Kitt cited her experiences with organizations like Rebels With A Cause to note how a generation of young men had turned to crime and violent acts because they saw no future for themselves beyond being drafted and sent to kill and eventually die in Vietnam.

The next day, phone calls came informing her of cancelled nightclub engagements and television appearances. In later years, it was revealed that the CIA had kept a damning dossier on her, and press reports stated that the president himself, who once praised The Smothers Brothers for their comedy routines that were critical of his administration, ordered Kitt to be deemed unemployable.

A recreation of Eartha Kitt's brief speech at that White House event is the thrilling dramatic centerpiece of playwright/performer Dierdra McDowell's excellent solo play, Down To Eartha, which wraps up its current run at the Gene Frankel Theatre this afternoon.

After being treated to delightful tastes of Kitt's talent as a performer so captivating that Orson Wells, who gave her an early break by casting her as Helen of Troy, referred to her as "the most exciting woman in the world," McDowell, guided by Marishka S. Phillips' direction, effectively evolves into a more somber mood as she describes the events leading up to her unexpected moment in the political spotlight. As she addresses the First Lady directly, McDowell reveals Kitt as impassioned, but respectfully reserved, perhaps overwhelmed by the history of her surroundings and the power of her hosts, but determined to let her voice be heard.

Watching that moment, you can feel pride in living in a country where the First Amendment supports such free speech, admiration of the bravery of a Black woman in 1968 openly criticizing presidential policy to the face of the First Lady and the dread of knowing what will happen next.

Soon after, McDowell perfectly captures the power of Eartha Kitt as we see the star in a more comfortable setting, singing her signature tune C'est si bon while performing in Europe. The scene is highlighted with an extended sequence where McDowell comes up close to flirt with audience members, breaking into Kitts's broad joyous smile to cut the tension when things get too steamy.

Down To Eartha clocks in at just an hour, a length that makes it suitable for cabaret spaces and festival time slots, but I was left wanting more. If the author/performer desires, the play can be expanded to dig deeper into Kitt's career and activism, and especially her comeback to Broadway in the 70s. But even in its current state, it's worth a visit if McDowell decides to bring her play back..

In many ways, Theodora Skipitares' Grand Panorama is exactly the kind of show people go to La MaMa to see;...

...a little offbeat, a little whimsical, abundantly non-traditional and ultimately conveying an important message that provides playgoers with a fascinating response the next time someone asks what they've seen lately.

Running through March 6th, with advance tickets priced at $25 ($20 for students/seniors), the intriguing and educational piece is inspired by the texts of speeches given by Frederick Douglass on the subject of photography.

Douglass, the most photographed subject of the 19th Century, saw photography as a great equalizer, allowing, for example, a maid making a modest living to have an inexpensive, quickly made portrait of herself that was a more accurate depiction than the expensive painting her wealthy employer devoted many hours to sit for.

And as it pertained to the enslaved people of the era, Douglass would point out how photography allowed for objective, truthful representations to combat the racism of demeaning, caricature drawings.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  LBJ, The CIA and Eartha Kitt
Photo: Richard Termine

"Those who have prejudices will be compelled to admit that they are looking at a man when they are looking at his photograph."

For the first half of Grand Panorama, Skipitares places actor Jayson Kerr to one side, narrating with the great orator's words, while the rest of the playing space is populated by an ensemble of dancers and puppeteers, using period art forms such as panorama, magic lantern, shadow theater and the crankie to not only dramatize Douglass' remarks about his own experiences, but to tell how freedom fighter Sojourner Truth became one of the first public figures to make a living by selling photos of herself, and how Nate Biddle became the first casualty of the Civil War when northerners reacted with outrage to see a Black man wearing their country's uniform.

"Rightly viewed, the whole soul of man is a sort of picture gallery, a grand panorama."

The second half brings us to the 20th Century and W.E.B. DuBois' "Exhibit of American Negroes," which displayed positive photographic images of Black Americans.

But the new century also brings scientific advances that favor the features of white subjects and allows for more artistic editorializing. As depicted by handheld cutouts, in the 21st Century, most people in America have a camera in their pocket, allowing them to capture truthful images and then adjust their appearance to their personal taste.

Entertaining and thought-provoking, Grand Panorama is recommended for ages 10 and up; a great choice for family viewing as well as a conversation starter for a night on the town.

Curtain Line...

They say that A Chorus Line wasn't a hit until it was decided that Cassie would get the job, but I think my friends at Marie's Crisis would be rooting for Sheila.