Review: ‘Ethel Waters’ is a must-see at the Actors’ Warehouse
By Ron Cunningham Sun theater critic
Just what did the lady do to feel so black and blue?
Ethel Waters had it all. She toured the world in concert, mixing with the likes of Josephine Baker and Sophie Tucker. She was a star of stage and screen. Just the second black woman ever nominated for an Oscar, fame not so much found her as absorbed her. Consumed her, really.
For beneath all that veneer fluttered the heart of a deeply troubled woman. “Stormy Weather” was less a theme song then the story of her life.
Possessed of low self esteem, Waters would forever deem herself that “bastard from Whore’s Alley.” With fame came resentment at the cheating “white folks” who ran Hollywood and Broadway. Incapable of embracing love, she sought solace in the “unholy trinity … donuts, pig’s feet and apple pie,” eating herself to death.
Oh, and that thing about being a successful black woman? Never, ever tell her that.
“Look at my skin! Does it look black to you?” she’d retort, eyes flashing. “I’m a colored woman.”
The Ethel Waters’ story is tragic, funny and uplifting in equal measures. And it is currently being told at the Actors’ Warehouse in a sparse, moving one-woman show written by Florida playwright Larry Parr.
Even if you are too young to have ever heard of the woman, “Ethel Waters: His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” is a must-see. From street urchin to abused wife to vaudeville extra to the belle of Harlem and toast of Broadway to gospel queen, the life and legend of Ethel Waters is compelling theater.
And listen, had she been around in another era, Gainesville actor Constance Fields might have been Ethel’s understudy. It’s not just a canny physical resemblance; for two remarkable hours Fields lives in Waters’ skin.
As a vocalist Fields does not exactly match the legend — she carries a capable tune but occasionally stumbles and falters through such classics as “Frankie And Johnnie,” “Heatwave,” “Dinah” and, of course, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”
But let’s not quibble here. Her real strength is as storyteller par excellence. And her expressive eyes are windows into Ethel’s soul.
They twinkle when she recounts Waters’ brief Catholic school days. The nuns “were all dressed in black and white like a bunch of crows, waiting to peck my eyes out.”
They glisten as she tells of showing up for a booking in Macon, Georgia, just in time to see the aftermath of a young boy’s lynching. “They murdered that lamb.”
They glint wickedly as she recalls being divorced at 14. “Take your choice; either I divorce ya’ or I gotta kill ya’.”
And they are liquid pools of remorse when, much too late in life, she finally comes to grips with her own racism. “Me, a bigot?”
Director Kennan Liston wisely chose to forego elaborate stage settings in favor of a series of simple but effective props — a seemingly endless selection of aprons, fruit-laden headgear, a simple choral robe and so on. Behind the scene, William Powell ably pounds away on a slightly tinny piano that sounds as if it might have seen action in Edmond’s Cellar, Waters’ old stomping grounds.
In its telling, Ethel Waters’ life is a bit like “serving chitlins with caviar,” Fields muses. That turns out to be a tasty dish indeed.