Bristol Riverside Theater continues its 20th-anniversary season with the second-ever production of Larry Parr’s “Ethel Waters, His Eye Is on the Sparrow” celebrates the life and singing of Ethel Waters. Born in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1896 to a poor, 13-year old who had been raped, and raised by her grandmother in a Philadelphia slum, Waters lived in the south and later moved to New York in 1919. Part of the Harlem Renaissance, she became one of the most successful African-American singers of the first half of the 20th century. Her career included stints on Broadway and in Hollywood. She was one of the first black women to be nominated for an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress in 1949), and she received a posthumous Grammy Hall of Fame Award and was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. She died in 1977.
“His Eye Is on the Sparrow” is a one-woman show. At Bristol Riverside that woman is Demetria Joyce Bailey, and herein lies another story. The actress originally chosen for the part left at the last minute for health reasons, and Bailey took over some nine days before the first performance. And this was no small task. “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” is a two-act, two- hour show, and Bailey is on stage almost the entire time. David Alan Bunn, the pianist, has solos at the beginnings and ends of acts, but it is mind-boggling to realize how much Bailey accomplished in those nine days. Fifteen songs are used in the production from the title song (written in 1912) to “Cabin in the Sky” and “Taking a Chance on Love” (both written in 1940). Many of the songs, from “Sweet Georgia Brown” to “Dinah” to “Am I Blue” to “Stormy Weather,” will be familiar to audiences of a certain age.
In between the musical numbers Bailey tells the story of Waters’ tumultuous life, from the early days of poverty and violence through her later successes, first in the African American community and eventually on Broadway and in Hollywood, to her final years working with Billy Graham. The play pulls no punches about the ugly aspects of race relations in Waters’ life. A strong fighter for equal rights, she gave away much of her unusually large earnings to help those in need.
The production has a single set, with a few basic props — chairs, a dresser — representing a variety of places. Light sometimes shines through the windows of the three angular apartment buildings that rise behind the room. The buildings, which are usually white, sometimes take on a variety of colors, bringing to mind the paintings of Jacob Lawrence and William H. Johnson.
Bailey, who has performed as an actress in a variety of movie, theatrical, and television productions, has been involved with choral groups since her childhood. In many ways she seems a surprising choice for Ethel Waters, since she saves her booming chest voice for just a few numbers, usually those associated with the darkest moments in Waters’ life. Most of the time Bailey sings in a quiet sweet head voice, not what most of us think of when we think of Ethel Waters.
David Alan Bunn, the pianist and musical director, has been an arranger, conductor, composer, and pianist both on and off Broadway and works to take us back to the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. He also helps set the mood by his minimal change of costume between the first and second acts — a brown suit and bowler gives way to a tux. He and Daniel Little, the sound designer, have wisely chosen to keep the miking to a minimum, which sometimes leads to surprising effects. For example, at one point the mike seemed to pick up only Bailey’s low notes. The miking will presumably help Bailey make it through the run, because there were moments when the strain her voice was under was worrisome.
“His Eye Is on the Sparrow” is directed by Susan D. Atkinson, the founding producing director of Bristol Riverside Theater. Sets are by Marion Powell, costumes by Linda Bee Stockton, lighting by Rob Crane, and wigs by Louis Palena. The play forms part of the author’s trilogy of one-person musical biographies of African-American women; the other two deal with Hattie McDonald and Alberta Hunter. And if the audience reaction the night I was there is any indication — there was a standing ovation — Bristol Riverside Theater has a big hit on its hands.
“Ethel Waters, His Eye is On the Sparrow,” through Sunday, February 111, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. A play by Larry Parr. $34 to $42. www.brtstage.org or 215-785-0100.