The news today of Eartha Kitt’s death brought to mind her brilliant performance here in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, the monodrama-with-music about jazz great Billie Holiday. Performing at the Athenaeum Theatre in 1996, Kitt made no attempt to duplicate Holiday’s fluid vocal style, which was very different from her own throaty, vibrato-filled growl. Instead, she completely inhabited the role on her own terms, melding her distinctive personality and powerful stage presence with Holiday’s tragic story and putting a new spin on such Holiday standards as “Strange Fruit.” By not trying to impersonate Holiday, I wrote at the time, “Kitt draws on her own troubled career as an outspoken, temperamental African-American woman artist to give a performance of unapproachable authority. The result is not only riveting drama; it’s an experience of spellbinding, almost ritual intensity.”
Interesting that Kitt died within a day of British playwright Harold Pinter. Both famously criticized American foreign policy. In the 1960s, Kitt denounced the Vietnam war while attending a White House luncheon, reportedly reducing Lady Bird Johnson to tears. Attacked as unpatriotic for her opposition to the war, she was blackballed in U.S. show-biz circles for more than a decade, and worked mostly in Europe. In the 1980s and ’90s, Pinter condemned what he called America’s “brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless” support for South American dictators, and, in his 2005 Nobel acceptance speech, slammed President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq as “a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism,” adding that Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair deserved to be arraigned for war crimes before the International Criminal Court of Justice.