Theater Review: “Who is Eartha Mae?” — Lady Sings the Sultry

By Erik Nikander

Anchored by the assured direction of Cailin Doran and Jade Wheeler’s dazzling performance, Who is Eartha Mae? sings with truth.

Who is Eartha Mae? A One-Woman Play With Music About the Life & Times of Eartha Kitt created and performed by Jade Wheeler. Directed by Cailin Doran. Music Direction and Piano by Seulah Noh and Choreography by Jenna Pollack. Staged by Bridge Repertory Theatre at the Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second Street, Cambridge, MA, through February 23.

Jade Wheeler plays Eartha Kitt in the world premiere Bridge Repertory Theatre production. Photo: courtesy of Bridge Rep.

The late, great Eartha Kitt represented different things to different crowds. To some, she was a crooning cabaret singer, performing her act in a plethora of languages and trying to seduce Santa Claus. To viewers of the 1960s Adam West Batman TV series, she embodied Catwoman, our hero’s feisty feline foe. To my younger self she was Yzma, the conniving mad scientist villain from Disney’s criminally underrated The Emperor’s New Groove (she and Patrick Warburton make a wonderful comedic duo). Audiences the world over knew Eartha Kitt at least one version of Eartha Kitt, but did that knowledge ever extend beneath the surface? In Who is Eartha Mae?, show creator and performer Jade Wheeler digs deep into the space between Kitt’s public persona and her true self, exploring the late legend through a performance that is layered, intimate, and truly captivating.

Though her stage persona depended on a blend of vivacious sensuality and wry humor; the early life of Eartha Kitt (Jade Wheeler) presented the young girl with plenty of hardships, including abusive parental figures and the harsh realities of poverty. Through hard work, persistence, and a bit of luck, she rose to become a renowned singer, dancer, and actor performing her nightclub act all over the world. Wheeler guides us through Kitt’s triumphs and struggles alike, from her self-discovery as an artist and her early creative partnership with Orson Welles to the backlash she encountered as an outspoken black woman in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. But even when faced with such formidable foes as institutional racism and a CIA blacklist, Eartha Mae never lost sight of who she was.

Kitt, as depicted by Wheeler, is a thoroughly sympathetic figure, which is in part a credit to the performer’s lifelong integrity. Her courage in sticking to her own convictions on issues like poverty, race relations, and LGBT rights never wavered, even in the face of intense opposition. Her dedication to just and difficult causes was driven by a strong moral core rather than the shifting winds of popular opinion. Finding this level of sincere devotion to doing the right thing in a public role model is increasingly rare, especially as we learn more sordid facts every day about renowned entertainers’ misdeeds, so Kitt’s admirable example comes at a good time.

That’s not to say that the show ever presents Eartha Mae as a towering, unimpeachable figure of perfection. On the contrary, Wheeler’s performance paints a portrait of Kitt as a layered human being who was often frustrated when her audience (especially her male audience) couldn’t see her as anything deeper than a gold-digging sexpot. The actress deftly channels the seductive, nightclub-act Eartha, then casts the slinky persona aside and addresses the audience one-to-one. These moments are startlingly candid and frank, revealing volumes about Kitt’s inner life. Wheeler’s commitment to the nuances of the role turns what could have been a shallow, if entertaining, Eartha Kitt impression into a multi-faceted expression of the joys and uncertainties of an artist’s life.

The Multicultural Center for the Arts in Cambridge provides plenty of room in its performance space for Wheeler and director Cailin Doran to come up with inventive staging opportunities. They make the most of this creative freedom. Not only does Wheeler open the show on a high balcony at the top of a towering staircase (playing up the idealized nature of the Kitt persona?), but she also weaves through the nightclub-style seating area at the front of the stage. These choices add visual variety to the piece while dissolving the emotional barrier between Wheeler and the audience. As she charges through a high-energy dance number at the start of the show — the young Kitt, discovering her talents — the crowd is swept up in her passion and energy. There is no need for Wheeler’s Eartha Mae to say a word; we know exactly what the moment means to her.

Thankfully, the show never drags when when the staging is more traditional, either. Wheeler’s commitment to the character shines through in her body language, down to her most minute gestures. The simplest actions, such as applying makeup or pouring a glass of champagne, serve as valuable expressions of character. Joe Stallone’s prop design is thorough and detailed, filling Eartha’s corner of the world with relics of a life well lived. Even more effective are the wigs (by Rayo Cole) and costumes (by Kathleen Doyle). Detly swapping out her hair and dress to take on a new identity, Wheeler points out the artificiality of Kitt’s showbiz image and highlights the star’s powers of transformation. The play successfully dramatizes the conflict the singer felt when her intelligence and conviction had to be sidelined in favor of the sultry nightclub singer persona.

At times, it’s hard not to wish Who is Eartha Mae? was able to take an even more comprehensive look at the life of its fascinating subject. A 75-minute cabaret show simply doesn’t have the time to cover all of an 81-year life and a career that spanned six decades. The show’s nightclub-act format feels a tad thin at times, but it’s also extremely effective at conveying Kitt’s emotional journey. It tells her story while also giving audiences a taste of what it might have been like to see her sing live in a Paris club. But this is no mere tribute act; it’s an incisive and moving piece with plenty to say about the nature of race, gender, and political activism. Anchored by the assured direction of Cailin Doran and Jade Wheeler’s dazzling performance, Who is Eartha Mae? sings with truth.

Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.

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