Florance and Jamison Star As Ethel Waters in Kennie Playhouse Theatre's HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW

Why Hasn't Ethel Waters Been Given the Big Showbiz Spectacle She Deserves?

By: Sep. 28, 2023
Florance and Jamison Star As Ethel Waters in Kennie Playhouse Theatre's HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW

Thoughts and memories of Ethel Waters fill the mind in the aftermath of seeing His Eye Is On the Sparrow: The Ethel Waters Musical now onstage at Nashville’s Z. Alexander Looby Center Theatre through Sunday, October 1. For example: Why isn’t Waters’ name and career as widely known and followed as, say, that of Billie Holiday? Why hasn’t Waters’ equally compelling and inspiring life story been given a big and brash Broadway musical production (playwright Larry Parr’s version is presented on a much smaller and more intimate scale) or a notable film treatment (not unlike The United States vs. Billie Holiday, however successful one deems that movie to be)?

Florance and Jamison Star As Ethel Waters in Kennie Playhouse Theatre's HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW Of course, we can lay blame for that at the feet of the predominantly white (and white-focused) entertainment industry that has long given short shrift to oftentimes superior artists of color when deciding upon whom should be the subject of stage and screen glorification. Or is it because in her later years, Waters (who can lay claim as one of the “red hot mamas” of vaudeville and early Broadway, of whom the white Sophie Tucker was billed as “the last of…”) became better known as a mainstay of the evangelizing Billy Graham Crusade? Trust me, the woman whose recordings of “Dinah,” “Stormy Weather” and “Am I Blue?” have been elevated to the GRAMMY Hall of Fame, who was once the highest paid performer on The Great White Way, a two-time Oscar nominee and the first Black woman to appear on her own television show and to later be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award deserves so much more attention than what she has been given.

How on earth can people look quizzically at me when I remark that the Ethel Waters of her youth is quite different from the maternal, benevolent grandmotherly type of her 70s? Have they never seen Cabin in the Sky or The Member of the Wedding? The woman is an entertainment legend who broke down barriers, an American original who opened the doors for those who followed after her and who created memorable film portrayals that are justifiably renowned.

Florance and Jamison Star As Ethel Waters in Kennie Playhouse Theatre's HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW While we wait for Ethel Waters to get the large-scale showbiz treatment she deserves, Nashville audiences, for now at least, can show respect and give recognition to the legendary figure who is brought to life onstage once more by Connye Florance and Saaneah Jamison via the Kennie Playhouse Theatre production of Parr’s His Eye Is On the Sparrow: The Ethel Waters Musical. Director Kennie Dozier’s production is somewhat uneven, but his two leading ladies – the aforementioned Florance and Jamison – are mesmerizing, each one creating her own indelible portrait and unique interpretation of Ethel Waters in two acts that feature some of her best-known songs, tunes that are a part of the Great American Songbook and among the most haunting, most beautiful melodies ever written.

Playwright Parr’s consideration of Waters’ life touches on many of the high points (although her second Academy Award nomination – she was honored for roles in Pinky and The Member of the Wedding – is left out, as well as her work in the early days of network television), as well as the low points (tragic events from her younger life and the various heartbreaks of her later life, including her issues with her health that ultimately killed her at 80 years of age). It’s a fascinating look at the life of one of America’s most accomplished Black performers, made all the more intriguing and captivating by the actors portraying her onstage.

Florance and Jamison Star As Ethel Waters in Kennie Playhouse Theatre's HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW With musical direction by longtime Florance collaborator and friend Kevin Madill, who doubles as pianist, the two women are given superb musical support throughout.

Jamison, a relative newcomer to the stage, portrays the younger Ethel, offering audiences an unfettered glimpse at her Pennsylvania childhood, born as the result of her mother’s rape at the age of 12 (although some historians contend Louise – or “Ma’ouise” as she is called in the play – was older when her baby was born, as if that makes a difference) and raised by a hardworking grandmother who died before Ethel was 13. Jamison effectively shows us the immature Ethel’s fascination with entertainment and music, which led to the development of her own presence and talents that led to her long career.

In addition to the better known “Frankie and Johnny,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “This Joint in Jumpin’,” Jamison also introduces audiences to the offbeat “Masculine Women, Feminine Men” from 1926 and 1934’s haunting “Little Black Boy” that proves to be the highlight of the first act, while sharing the horrific realities of Ethel’s life constrained by prejudice, bias and virulent racism. To her credit, however, Jamison never allows Waters’ great spirit to be eclipsed.

Florance and Jamison Star As Ethel Waters in Kennie Playhouse Theatre's HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW Florance, long a mainstay of Nashville’s theater and music stages, takes over in Act Two to show us Ethel Waters as she is making a name for herself on a wider stage, gaining fans and followers with her performances in vaudeville, nightclubs and Broadway, which ultimately lead to Hollywood. As the more mature Ethel, Florance paints a vivid portrait of the star that is nothing short of breathtaking. In fact, there are moments when she seemingly becomes Ethel Waters, looking just like the woman as she performs one of the standards venerated by lovers of music the world over. It’s as if she morphs into her – or at least channels her – to dazzle the audience with her heartfelt interpretation of the music and lyrics. Make no mistake about it, she gives an amazingly spine-tingling performance you won’t forget for a long, long time to come.

Florance’s performance of “Taking A Chance On Love” is exquisite – one of the best renditions of the song that I have ever witnessed. Likewise, her “Am I Blue?” and “Stormy Weather” are startling and stunning, with “Black and Blue” delivering an emotional jolt that is felt long after the final curtain, given added poignance by the character of Ethel’s resolute statement that she is not Black, but rather “colored.” One cannot help but wonder what Ethel Waters must have felt while singing the song; my guess is that Connye Florance knows.

Florance, the actor, shows off her acting chops throughout, with particular resonance when she talks of Ethel’s experience making a film co-starring Lena Horne by claiming her own star status in a vivid recollection. That moment will lead aficionados of Horne’s one-woman show in which she railed against her own denigration as a “light-skinned Hedy Lamarr," to recall with affection her performance. Florance is also very effective when she relates the stories behind Waters’ relationship with evangelist and white Southern Baptist Billy Graham that explains a great deal heretofore unknown to me.

The two stars of the show come together at its finale for a stirring performance of the show’s title song “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” that is sure to tug at your heartstrings, no matter your personal beliefs.

As an aside, I should point out that my favorite Ethel Waters song – a recorded performance of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” – is not included in the program, but I offer this advice to readers of this review: Find it on YouTube, on a digital recording or, more appropriately, on vinyl and experience the particularly indulgent delight of hearing her unmistakably singular, bittersweet, melancholy and soulful rendition. It will make you weep.

And go see His Eye Is On the Sparrow: The Ethel Waters Musical. You’ll be so very glad you did.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow: The Ethel Waters Musical. By Larry Parr. Directed by Kennie Dozier. Musical direction by Kevin Madill. Choreography by Shavaz Chijioke Ujima. Stage managed by Bianca Sass. Presented by Kennie Playhouse Theatre at the Z. Alexander Looby Center Theatre, Nashville. Through Sunday, October 1. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. For details, go to www.kennieplayhousetheatre.org.

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