Dierdra McDowell is Just Purr-fect in “Down To Eartha”

Written and performed by award-winning artist Dierdra McDowell and directed by Marishka S. Phillips, the extraordinary one-woman show Down To Eartha opens with gorgeously shot footage of McDowell recreating Eartha Kitt’s performance of Monotonous from the 1954 film New Faces.  Featuring a simple set of McDowell seductively moving between three chaise lounges, it is indeed a faithful re-enactment– right on down to the intense lighting and bright colors of the films of that era.  But that’s just the beginning… Throughout Down To Eartha, it’s no less than astonishing how McDonnell channels Eartha Kitt– not just with her looks and with her voice, but also with the fluid choreography of her movement.  It’s a safe bet that anyone coming to see Down To Eartha is already a fan of Ms. Kitt (Like me!).  But even younger audiences who may have never seen any footage of the real Eartha Kitt on TV or in movies will quickly learn from the opening of this show alone why Kitt was such a captivating performer.  First: There was that unique, feline grace and flexibility. (McDowell-as-Kitt later declares, “With Catwoman, I don’t have to think about how you PLAY a cat.  I AM a cat!“) Of course, there was also that deliciously distinctive voice– complete with her trademark purrs– combined with Kitt’s unapologetically direct style of sex appeal.  If the song Monotonous, still delightful to hear in 2022, sounds like it was written specifically for Eartha, it’s because, well… it was.  Check out these lyrics:

“For what it’s worth, throughout the earth

I’m known as femme fatale…

But when the yawn comes up like thunder, brother,

Take back your Taj Mahal!”

After the video introduction, McDowell continued with a pulse-pounding performance of Uska Dara (A Turkish Tale), backed by intense percussion by Atiba Morales

Clearly, Eartha Kitt was a force of nature. As mentioned later on in McDowell’s play, she was even called “the most exciting woman in the world”– a description which came from Orson Wells himself.  Just as importantly, and no less provocative, is how one of McDowell’s goals with Down To Eartha is to show the woman BEHIND the star. While “Eartha Kitt” was the superstar who could seemingly hold her own against a pack of wolves, underneath the glamour was the little girl named “Eartha Mae” who faced unrelenting racism, poverty, and abuse as a child.  In a day and age where the label “survivor” is used as casually as an Instagram filter, McDowell’s exploration of the other side of Eartha Kitt’s life is no less than awe-inspiring.  While Down To Eartha touches upon several aspects of Kitt’s childhood (and, as mentioned before, it was anything but a Broadway show…) the piece focuses mainly on one aspect of the star’s unique life story: specifically, when the performer was blacklisted from American pop culture after a fateful luncheon at the White House on January 18, 1968.  Kitt was one of 50 women invited to Lady Bird Johnson’s “Women Doer’s Conference”.  Disappointed by the seemingly superficiality of the meeting, Kitt offered her unsoftened view of the Vietnam War: specifically, how it disproportionately affected young black men and was tied in with social unrest on the home front.  This resulted in sensationalist news stories (The front page of The New York Times screamed the headline “Eartha Kitt denounces war policy to Mrs. Johnson”.), a CIA investigation, cancelled bookings, and reduced record sales.  Looking back with a 2022 lens, it’s not hard to see how race and gender were contributing factors to Kitt’s becoming a scapegoat. For the singer– a single mother who needed to perform to make a living– the aforementioned “survivor instinct” was more vital than ever.   

Eartha Kitt, of course, would rebound and fulfill a career that lasted six decades.  The climax of Down To Eartha, where the singer vows to move forward even if it means leaving America to do it, is a revelation.  I won’t give away too much (!), but I will say that as someone who got to see the real Eartha Kitt perform at New York City’s Blue Note in 2004, McDowell flawlessly replicates the same phenomenon of Kitt zeroing in on one specific male member of her show and gently teasing him with her impressive international seduction skills.  Let’s just say that no man is safe!  (As one audience member was overheard saying, “It’s getting hot in here!”)

The intimate space of The Gene Frankel Theatre works very well with the interactive nature of Down To Eartha.  At just an hour in running time, this amazing piece is bolstered by lush costumes and some creative audiovisual touches.  This includes the use of archived photographs and video footage, as well as the talented McDowell’s own innovative take on the Eartha persona.  An example is when she sings her planned meeting with Lyndon Johnson to the tune of one of Kitt’s most beloved hits, Santa Baby… To summarize: For established Eartha fans as well as anyone yet to discover Kitt’s contributions to American pop culture history, Down To Eartha is, well… purr-fect!

24 Bond Arts Center & Faith Steps Productions presents Down To Eartha. The show continues through Sunday, February 27. Showtimes are Wednesday through Saturday at 8PM and Sunday at 4PM. The Gene Frankel Theatre is located at 24 Bond Street, between Bowery and Lafayette — accessible from B, D, F, and M trains at Broadway/Lafayette or the #6 at Bleecker. Tickets are $20 – $25, available at www.downtoeartha.com. This revival is in honor of Black History Month. 

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