They Called Me Rita, written by Onyx Hartwell, shines a light on the private struggles of Rita Hayworth. Performer Nelia McNicol takes the stage with Hayworth’s characteristic charm and sexiness. The music is appealing, and choreography by Aydan Cohen brings Hayworth vibrantly to life. McNicol introduces herself to the audience as Rita Hayworth from New York City in 2023. Hayworth died in 1986 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. This 2023 Hayworth “remembers everything” and dives into her past to reveal what made the star who she was – and what she was hiding from the public.
The following scenes reveal how Hayworth, like many starlets of the time, was manipulated and often victimized by the men in her life, from her father to both of her husbands to producers and directors. McNicol’s on-stage costume changes, which mark the different scenes, are the most interesting parts of the show. It is here that McNicol displays Hayworth’s confidence and optimism, and the performer’s dance background.
The scene of Hayworth’s ethic erasure – changing her Spanish name (Margarita Carmen Cansino), getting electrolysis on her hairline, and dying her hair its characteristic ginger – was illuminating. Hayworth’s handlers did such a good job of remaking her in the image of an all-American pinup that many people didn’t know about it, and the script and McNicol did a nice job telegraphing the pain of the transformation and the optimism that powered Hayworth through it.
During each subsequent encounter with the men who took advantage of Hayworth, we see her go from determined and optimistic to broken and disillusioned. Midway through the show, the cycle begins to feel manic. This seems intentional, as Hayworth’s personal pain unspools and presumably her early-onset Alzheimer’s creeps in. McNicol, however, relies too much on the same style of dramatic pauses, airy gasps and sweeping arm gestures that it loses its effect and becomes difficult to empathize.
In the final scene, where Hayworth addresses her daughters and her shame and regret culminate in a desperate kind of hope – that her daughters will carry on what strength and optimism she once had – McNicol’s pain feels more genuine. But ultimately, the script and emotion are so similar to the reactions in previous scenes (when her marriages ended, for example) that it feels less like a catharsis and more like a complete descent into grief. That may have been the intention all along, but it leaves the audience with a lopsided and pitiable image of Hayworth.
"They Called Me Rita"
Written by Onyx Hartwell
Directed by Lil Malinich
Performed by Nelia McNicol
Choreography by Aydan Cohen
September 29 and October 8
The 15th United Solo Festival
September 25- November 19, 2023
410 West 42nd (btw 9th and 10th Avenue)
STEPHANIE EAGAN is a professional writer based in NJ. A fan of every type of live performance imaginable, from taiko drumming to political performance art, she travels the tri-state area and beyond in search of music, art, theater, and excellent coffee.