“Down to Earth” is a new theater performance by MPTP Productions Intl. in association with 24 Bond Arts Center. This one-woman show was written and performed by Dierdra McDowell who portrays the life of Eartha Kitt. In celebration of Black History Month, performances run February 23-27 at Gene Frankel Theatre.
Eartha Kitt was a Black, female, entertainer who played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement of 1968. After offending Lady Bird Johnson at the White House due to her opposition of the Vietnam War, Eartha Kitt was blacklisted from working in the United States for ten years. This show illustrates how Eartha lived her life, coped with hardships, and retained both her talent and her dignity.Brooklyn-born Dierdra McDowell has Panamanian roots. She has worked on both screen and stage and recently discussed her career and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in acting and are you more partial to the stage or the screen?
Dierdra McDowell (DM): I’ve always dreamed of being an actress ever since I was a little girl. I used to watch The Cosby Show every week and just wished there was room for an extra daughter/sister. That show inspired me to dream about those opportunities. It showed me that it was actually possible! So, I am happy to say that many years later I did follow through with that path. And even though I happen to get more opportunities in TV and film, which I love, I also find a certain magic that lives in live theater that cannot compare to anything else.
MM: What are the biggest differences between the two mediums?
DM: I find that one of the biggest differences is the expansion of “the frame” from one medium to the next. For instance, in TV and film you are always working within the frame of the camera lens, and your creativity as an actor really shows with how you work within those parameters. There’s also the aspect of getting to do the same scene multiple times. Whereas in live theater, you only get one shot at it each performance. You also must be very aware that you are performing for a larger space (or bigger “frame”) and therefore you must project your voice and present yourself so that the whole theater can connect with your performance.
MM: You’re also a playwright, so did acting or writing come to you first?
DM: Well now that I think of it… I think writing came to me first because when I was very young, I used to write full “productions” for my cousins and I to perform at family gatherings (like Thanksgiving or birthday parties). I would come up with different skits, gather the costumes and make props etc… Then I would direct my cousins on how to act it out. It was so funny! After a while we started performing outside for the neighbors and we would charge them 10 cents for tickets!
MM: How did you initially become aware of Eartha Kitt and why did you decide to center a play around her life?
DM: Although I already knew who Eartha Kitt was from movies such as Boomerang and the TV series Batman, I became even more aware of her when I was studying in an acting class with celebrity coach Susan Batson. In Ms. Batson’s class while I was working on what she called an “animal exercise,” while analyzing my performance, she simply looked at me and said, “I see Eartha!” When she said this to me something woke up inside of me. I immediately felt driven and compelled to learn more about Eartha Kitt. So, I went home and did some research and found that she had written several autobiographies. After reading them and understanding that by then she had already passed away, I became passionate about artistically conveying her story. I ended up writing and performing in two plays and one short film entitled “Love Always, Eartha” which went on to receive many awards in the film festival circuit in 2015.
MM: How much research went into this piece and what most surprised you about Eartha?
DM: Well, it really has been a lot of research! As I mentioned before I read her three autobiographies and 1 memoir. I am always watching her interviews and performances as well as documentaries. I have also read Lady Bird Johnson’s “A White House Diary” as well as documentaries on the Vietnam war, President Lyndon Johnson, and protests on the war. My research about Eartha Kitt is ongoing, because the more I look, the more I find new information that supports my being on the right track. When I first learned about Eartha’s life, I was surprised to learn that she was an abused orphan with a very difficult beginning. Knowing about her childhood suffering inspired me even more to write about it.
MM: How do you get into character to play a historic role such as this?
DM: Studying Eartha’s voice, mannerisms and body language are a must because she was very unique in her expression of herself…so I always do my best to stay true to that! But more importantly, I get into character for the show by working with my director and acting coach Marishka S. Phillips, who is absolutely phenomenal at getting to the core of the work that must be done to convey this character as honestly as possible.
MM: How long did it take you to complete this play and what was it like working in quarantine?
DM: The writing did not take long for me… less than a month…but I was extremely focused. I actually wrote this play before the Covid 19 quarantine began. We were in the middle of a residency at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem when we were shut down by the pandemic. We also had performances lined up in other states including California and Arizona.
MM: What’s your favorite part of this play and why?
DM: I love delivering the speech at the White House. I enjoy it in a different way every time. But honestly, I have multiple favorite scenes because each night something different lives in every moment. It is really hard to pick a favorite! I know I enjoy singing Cest Si Bon… and that is definitely different every night!
MM: Do you find one- woman shows to be more or less taxing than those with multiple cast members?
DM: It is definitely more challenging to perform a solo show than it is with multiple cast members… but wow, I mean really… I just love it so much!
MM: What’s the best fan feedback you’ve gotten about your acting and/or writing so far?
DM: I am so blessed to hear feedback such as “I felt like I just spent time with the real Eartha Kitt!” or “It shows that you have put in your 10,000 hours!” or ” I have always wanted to meet Eartha Kitt and tonight I feel like I did!”
MM: What other topics might you write about in the future?
DM: I feel drawn to write stories about women and children. These narratives touch my soul. I never “try” to write anything. I let my inspiration lead the way.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
DM: I would like the stories that I tell through writing and acting, to reach and touch audiences’ hearts on a worldwide level! So, when you hear the name Dierdra McDowell, you know exactly who that is! In addition to being an artist, I am a mother, a wife, a daughter. I am incredibly grateful for my family… and everything that I do is at the heart of my love for them!
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“Down to Earth” runs February 23 – 27, Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 4pm. Gene Frankel Theatre is located at 24 Bond Street, between Bowery and Lafayette — accessible from B,D,F,M trains at Broadway/Lafayette or the #6 at Bleecker. Tickets are $20 – $25, available at www.downtoeartha.com.
IMAGES BY TANJA PRODUCTIONS