Of all the performers considered legends of the 20th century, Ethel Waters deserves a special place in the history of African-American entertainers. If her name and legacy has sadly faded from view, her life and career as a unique blues singer, an Oscar-nominated screen actress, an award-winning stage actress, and a star in a TV series remains that of an incomparable artist who also broke down racial stereotypes. But, she was also a feisty, unhappy woman with a temper, who, embittered by her personal and professional experiences, harbored a very real hatred for white people for most of her life.
This long-festering hatred would get Waters into a lot of trouble when she was eventually labeled “a trouble maker” in the entertainment industry and found it difficult to get work. Waters, however, would have a change of mind and heart later in life when she met Evangelist Billy Graham and began to sing in his crusades. That she is saved by a white evangelist makes for a compelling and provocative hook on which to hang Waters’ story.
This one-person (with piano accompaniment) biographical musical, “Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” by Larry Parr has been circulating for a number of years (including a production at the Bristol Riverside Theater in 2007) and has showcased different singers as Waters. Although Demetria Joyce Bailey is recreating the performance she gave at Bristol Riverside Theater in New Jersey in 2007, the show is said to be completely re-conceived and re-structured under the direction of Robert Lanchester.
Basically a dramatic monologue with songs, the production is extremely modest with only a piano, a dressing screen, and a flat with painted clouds. Bailey is kept plenty busy making the numerous emotional transitions from dramatic episode to song and back again. Waters’ fight with obesity, however, is only mentioned, as Bailey remains slim throughout.
Parr, who also penned “Hi-Hat Hattie” (about Hattie McDaniel) and “My Castle’s Rockin’” (about Alberta Hunter) perhaps had his toughest assignment creating a show that would not alienate some members of the audience but also one in which Waters did not hold back the condemnations or the pervasive animosity she held towards white people.
While we may sympathize and understand, if not always empathize with Waters as she is defined by Parr and history, hers is a story worth telling even if it isn’t a pretty one. But it is also pretty telling about the kind of racial injustice that people of color had (and still have) to endure. That Waters survived a horrifyingly hellish beginning is almost miraculous. A searing, often shocking, narrative is punctuated with 15 songs and expands within a flashback that begins with Waters’ appearance with the Graham Crusade singing her signature song (and title of her biography) “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
It is almost unimaginable how Waters, who was born in 1896, survived her early years growing up in a Philadelphia slum she refers to as “Whore’s Alley.” Waters was born a bastard to an alcoholic who was raped when she was 12 years old. Impoverished and reduced to stealing food and sleeping on the street on top of heating grates to keep warm, Waters’ dream was to clean houses for rich white ladies like her grandmother. Married at 13 to an abusive man of 23 whom she soon divorced, Waters got work as a hotel maid where she practiced singing and dancing in front of the mirrors.
Bailey, who has toured with this show, affects the looks of different eras with her dress, various hats, and marceled hair. She effects the transitions in Waters’ age quite well, notably using “Frankie and Johnnie” as a link from Waters as a precocious teenager to her next phase when she is discovered singing in a dive (“Sweet Georgia Brown”).
She is soon touring in the vaudeville circuit where she was billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean” and facing an almost continuing string of life-threatening situations. She sees the body of a lynched black youth deposited on the floor of the lobby of a theater where she was booked in Macon, Georgia. Her decision to sing “Little Black Boy” at his funeral is not a good thing and she has to plot a fast escape from the menacing theater manager and the police.
In one of the musical’s most harrowing episodes, Waters tells us about her serious auto accident in the south. Since blacks were not allowed to be taken to hospitals but only to institutions for the insane, Waters would come close to dying there were it not for a nurse who recognizes her and helps her sneak away and onto a train. Blacks could not get anesthesia, so the surgery that was ultimately performed was done without it.
Another unsuccessful marriage doesn’t stop a determined if always belligerent Waters from becoming a sensation in nightclubs, notably the Cotton Club, and eventually on the Broadway stage in plays (“Mamba’s Daughters,” “Member of the Wedding”) and musicals (“Cabin in the Sky,” “At Home Abroad,” “As Thousands Cheer”) and films in Hollywood (“Cabin in the Sky,” “Stormy Weather,” and “Member of the Wedding”).
If Waters’ distinctively passionate and vibrant voice is unmatchable, Bailey creates a credible reality of Waters as a conflicted, belligerent, and unhappy woman. It is to Bailey’s credit that she handles the dramatic episodes with conviction and emotional honesty. Although Bailey modulates her pleasant legit voice without bellowing, most of the songs cry out for more dynamic energy and expressiveness. She impresses most with her low mezzo tones that suit so many of the blues. But it isn’t likely that anyone listening to her is going to get a clue as to what made Waters great. But you may want to sit back and simply enjoy Bailey’s own mostly agreeable renditions of such terrific old songs as “This Joint is Jumpin,’” “Old Man Harlem,” and “Dinah.”
Bailey hits her stride with “Taking a Chance on Love,” and “Cabin in the Sky.” She dons a tutti-frutti hat for “Heat Wave” and gives “Black and Blue” the jolt of energy that brings Waters story to its climax, a reprise of a gospel-styled “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” Waters stayed with Graham until her death in 1977. What a pleasure it is to hear Bailey’s lovely voice without the use of a mike. Superbly accompanied by Vince di Mura at the piano and as directed by Lanchester with a sharp eye on the sparrow, Bailey has taken up the challenge to reacquaint us with the essence of the inimitable Ethel Waters.
“Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” through Sunday, September 27, Passage Theater at the Mill Hill Playhouse, at the intersection of Front and Montgomery Streets, Trenton. $25; $30 on Saturday evenings. 609-392-0766.