It’s probable that there are a couple of generations of Americans who’ve never heard of Ethel Waters. But in her day—a long one, stretching back to before the 1920s almost to her death in 1977—she was a star, on stage, in recordings, on the radio and on both the big and small screen. That, as an African-American and a child born of rape and into poverty, she overcame many obstacles in her path is well documented in Larry Parr’s Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow, now onstage in a Florida Studio Theatre production in the Keating Theatre.
The one-woman show Parr devised to tell Waters’ story is not new; FST premiered the piece back in 2005, when it starred, as it does now, Jannie Jones in the role of Ethel. But to many theatergoers it will be new, and it doesn’t stint on the often painful truths of its subject’s life.
Backed by piano man Jim Prosser (under the musical direction of Dr. Justin P. Cowan), Jones delivers a number of Waters’ musical hits, not in the order in which they originally appeared, but in ways that relate to what was going on in Waters’ life at the time. The evening starts near its end, when she frequently toured with evangelist Billy Graham’s crusades, before harking back to the hardscrabble days of her youth on the mean streets of Philadelphia. There she was mostly loved and unwanted, but the feisty, lonely child, brought believably to life by Jones, had a drive to find a better place in the world.
Along the way she married, divorced, married again, divorced again, nearly died in a car accident, faced bigotry and violence in the South, and found success and somewhere to belong on the nightclub stages of Harlem and, eventually, in Hollywood, despite battling scripts that often catered to stereotypes. Happiness, though, was elusive—except perhaps when she was singing and dancing, as Jones’ expressive joy in performing reveals.
The actress was dealing with laryngitis issues before the opening night on Friday, but audiences wouldn’t have known that from the way she dived into songs ranging from bluesy to religious to mainstream—tunes including “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “This Joint Is Jumpin,’” “Am I Blue?” and “Stormy Weather.” With boundless energy, Jones (under the direction of Kate Alexander and with choreography by Ellie Mooney) moves convincingly from child to teen to maturity to old age. Even in moments where the script might feel rushed or overwrought, Jones has a handle on her role and keeps the viewer involved. While looking and sounding nothing like Waters, she nevertheless vividly conveys her spirit.
Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow continues through Aug. 4; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.