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Onstage sensation

‘Who is Eartha Mae?’ brings Kitt’s legacy to life

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Onstage sensation
Jade Wheeler portrays legendary performer Eartha Kitt. PHOTO: ANDREW BRILLIAN

Eartha Kitt’s spirit is alive and well and currently in residence at Cambridge’s Multicultural Center for the Arts during the Bridge Repertory Theater’s run of “Who is Eartha Mae?” The one-woman show, created and performed by powerhouse triple threat Jade Wheeler, explores the many layers of Kitt, from the persona she wore on stage to the childhood trauma she kept buried inside.

A colleague recommended Kitt’s story to Wheeler, and once the actor saw a video of Kitt performing “C’est Si Bon,” she was sold. “What drew me to her was this larger-than-life personality, this dazzling persona, and then, who was she really? Why did she go away for 10 years?” says Wheeler. “For me, her childhood and the resilience and tenacity that she had was really, really interesting.”

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Extensive research on these topics led to the creation of “Who is Eartha Mae?” In Bridge Rep’s production, running through Feb. 23, Wheeler’s Kitt primps in her dressing room on stage before a show in London and talks to the audience about her life. The incredible story begins in the cotton fields of South Carolina, hits a dramatic middle point when Kitt speaks out against the Vietnam War and is ostracized from the U.S. for a decade, and ends with the glamorous, successful starlet who took over the Catwoman role in the “Batman” television series.

Wheeler was born for this role. She emulates Kitt’s accent, mannerisms and music to perfection. She sings, she dances, she speaks several languages — and most importantly, she does Eartha’s memory reverent justice. The other talents contributing to the show include direction by Cailin Doran, music direction and live piano performance by Seulah Noh and choreography by Jenna Pollack.

For many reasons, Kitt lived a challenging life and fought constantly to stay alive and to be heard. Part of that struggle was her position as a woman of color, and her story of triumphing despite the racism she faced in America is extraordinarily relevant to today’s audiences. “Eartha Kitt herself was really breaking boundaries,” says Wheeler. “She sang a dozen languages, she did a ton of work with youth and homeless [people], she donated a ton of time and money, and she really was in the dirt — she really did love being in her garden.”

The answer to the question posed in this show’s title is never fully answered. And it’s not supposed to be. The story of such a multi-faceted woman of color attaining huge success in the 1950s and 60s is the message all in itself.

“As a person of color, as a woman, I wanted someone whose story resonated. And that helps the cause,” says Wheeler. “I think she’s relevant because now people in many different communities are taking up their own power and saying, ‘I shouldn’t have to be treated this way.’” Just like Eartha Kitt did all those years ago.

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