Kelli Weston on Anna Lucasta

Early reviewers often deemed Eartha Kitt too worldly. One critic said her performance in the Broadway production Mrs. Patterson was “too sophisticated to suggest a naive colored girl of the Deep South.” But that’s exactly who she was, at least in part. She was possessed as much of Eartha Mae—that lonesome girl from South Carolina, abandoned by her mother and shuttled between abusive relatives—as Eartha Kitt, the sylph, the siren, the icon. It is this marvelous duality, this elegant marriage of vulnerability and resilience, that makes Kitt’s rendition of the character Anna Lucasta so captivating (though contemporary critics were much stingier in their praise). The zenith of this performance, in which she dispenses with her own figurative veil to play these somber undertones, comes in an especially tragic sequence with a literal bridal veil, emblem of the refuge that has cruelly been denied her.

Many women have inhabited the character of Anna Lucasta. But perhaps none has been better suited to the role than the famously feline Eartha Kitt, with her imperious gaze, flickering with mischief or weary with somber histories, and boasting a nasal, purring cadence that’s like no other voice in the world. Consider the actresses who cycled through the role before her: bright-eyed ingenues (luminaries in their own right) Hilda Simms and Ruby Dee on stage; or an uninspiring Paulette Goddard in Irving Rapper’s remarkably soulless 1949 screen version, which is also the most faithful to Philip Yordan’s original play, about a Polish American woman forced into prostitution after her father cast her out for kissing a boy. By the time Kitt headlined an all-Black cast in Arnold Laven’s 1958 adaptation, she had emerged from the nightclubs of Europe an artful purveyor of temptation, well known for her extraordinary stage presence and sultry renditions of “Santa, Baby” and “C’est Si Bon.” But what made her a particularly intuitive choice, far from the casual sensuality that had so centrally defined Kitt’s persona, was that she, too, had experienced devastating family rejections that forever plagued her.

The film begins with Anna roaming the streets of San Diego. At the waterfront bar she frequents, she reunites with her sailor boyfriend, Danny (Sammy Davis, Jr.), who brings her a model of Papa Agwé (Vodou loa of the sea), a figure of benevolent fatherhood long lost to her. Back in Los Angeles, Joe Lucasta (Rex Ingram) forbids the family to speak of Anna. But when he hears that Rudolph Slocum (Henry Scott), the son of an old friend, has come to California with an inheritance and is looking for a wife, Joe’s greedy son-in-law, Frank (Frederick O’Neal), with designs on Rudolph’s money, forces Joe to retrieve Anna. Obviously, she longs for home, too; without much convincing, she leaves Danny and returns with her father. Of course, Anna and Rudolph fall in love, and even after she tells him about her past, he is determined to marry her. But her miserably vindictive father threatens to destroy the union.

Unfairly or not, Anna Lucasta’s writing has consistently been decried by critics across the play’s many iterations. Yordan, inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, initially struggled to get the play shown. It was Abram Hill who rewrote the drama around a Black family for the American Negro Theater (which he had co-founded alongside O’Neal); the troupe debuted at the Harlem Library Theater to widespread acclaim. When Yordan saw this, he quickly signed an agreement with Hill and his producer, and the play reopened on Broadway under Yordan’s name. Later it came out that Yordan had hired several Black writers to work on the script before it premiered on Broadway and those writers sued him when they didn’t get paid. By the time the play spawned two films, his contract with Hill, too, had long since vanished. Neither those writers nor Hill received a credit on the 1958 film.

Indeed, the scheme for Rudolph’s money seems contrived, only to be forgotten halfway through. But as far as melodramas go, Kitt’s Anna Lucasta ranks among the more satisfying heroines, if only because Hill had discerned how naturally the tale accommodated the horrors of Black domesticity, namely the reigning preoccupation with Black women’s sexuality and its perceived threat to the respectability of the home. Kitt herself is a testament to the rigid parameters within which Black women achieved celebrity. Anna, unlike the women—either mothers or wives—in her family, oscillates between the house and the bar, between the implicit realm of women and the world of men. Really both spaces are male domains. After all, Joe, an alcoholic, frequently shut away in his room, maintains a tentative hold on the Lucasta household. When she first returns home, Anna discards her form-fitting dress for a homely gingham frock and headscarf, but her awkward performance of modesty cannot quell her father’s incestuous obsession. He still recoils at her touch. The most symbolically charged attempt to reconcile with family yet again involves a head covering: that is, her bridal veil, a simple, elegant headpiece replete with a crown of flowers and lace flowing behind it. It is the hidden keynote of the film’s most harrowing sequence, a three-way confrontation between Anna, her father, and Danny.

In a film largely devoid of overt traces of cultural specificity apart from the racial subtext brought by the Black actors themselves, the veil invites a host of implications. Historically, the veil has operated as a political symbol for racialized communities: W. E. B. deployed it as his metaphor for—among other things—the color-line, all that divided Black people economically, spatially, and spiritually from white people. Frantz Fanon, too, observed how Algerian women weaponized the veil during the Algerian War, although he evades more complicated dimensions about the gendered social order it preserves. The veil consistently offers this twofold, contradictory proposal. Generally, it represents patriarchal conceptions of femininity and marriage that Black women more broadly and Anna specifically has been excluded from. She has been denied home and participation within the family unit; in an earlier scene Danny asks her to live with him, revealingly not as a married woman. Moreover, there lies a fascinating tension between marriage as a patriarchal contract, in the stifling conditions it often promised for women, and the care and intimacy it presents personally to a character who has been shunned and without community for so long.

The veil functions in a hybrid fashion, as both costume and prop, with more emphasis on the latter. After the ceremony, she and Rudolph return to the Lucasta house, but as Rudolph rushes off on an errand, Danny arrives. Just as he bursts through the door, Anna is removing the veil; no longer protected from evil spirits, as the superstition goes, she is faced with two men frustrated by the impossibility of possessing her. Few things are more dangerous to a woman. For the duration of the scene, she fiddles nervously with the lace in her hands, folding it smaller and smaller until it becomes barely visible between her knuckles. When she tells him that she has been married, Danny replies incredulously, “It does look like somebody has been married. Couldn’t be you, could it?” But Anna insists and Danny furiously shakes her. “You don’t belong to one man! You’ll never belong to one man! You can’t!”

It is her father’s intention to see that she belongs nowhere. He enters the scene to smugly report to them both that not only has he informed the dean of the university where Rudolph has just been hired of Anna’s past but also that he will continue to sabotage them, wherever they go. A horrified Anna, her cheeks soaked with tears, raises her fists, still clutching the veil, which by now embodies these considerable denials: her right to family, to home, to love. Danny whisks her away and she tosses the veil on the side of the road. There’s a surprising cut: in the next shot she slips out of her wedding dress into a slinkier outfit. Then comes another shot of the veil, drifting like tumbleweed down the street.

There’s more story to go, but for me this image of the deserted lace lingers the longest. How flimsy are these chances for happiness.