BWW Review: Maiesha McQueen Delivers Transcendent Performance in Ethel Waters Portrait HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW, at Portland Center Stage
This Portland theatre season has been delightfully packed with stories about incredible women who have overcome seemingly impossible odds. They’ve all been stunning, but we’ve hit a new high with Portland Center Stage’s HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW, a biographical portrait of African American stage and screen performer Ethel Waters.
A brief history (for those who, like me, had heard the name Ethel Waters, but knew nothing about her): Ethel Waters was a jazz, blues, and gospel singer whose voice you’ve likely heard on recordings of “Dinah,” “Stormy Weather,” and “Am I Blue?” Born in 1896, she gained popularity on the Vaudeville circuit in the 1920s and made a few appearances on Broadway. She was the first African American woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award, and the second to be nominated for an Oscar.
HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW is a biographical play about Waters’ life, centered on her relationship with God, who she didn’t have much use for as a child, but came to know later in life (she even became a frequent performer at Billy Graham‘s crusades). It’s also built around her music, including the iconic numbers mentioned above as well as the gospel song from which the play takes its title.
At just over two hours, this almost-one-woman show (there’s a piano player) demands a ton from its actress, in this case, Maiesha McQueen. And McQueen is wonderful — mesmerizing from beginning to end, and with a strong, gorgeous voice that moves just as easily between the different musical genres as Waters’ own. She broke my heart and put it back together again several times during the performance.
In a 1939 response to a ho-hum review of Waters’ Broadway performance in a show called Mamba’s Daughters, several well-known members of the theatre community took out an ad in the New York Times saying the performance “is a profound emotional experience which any playgoer would be the poorer for missing.” That description just as aptly describes McQueen’s performance here.
Earlier I gave short shrift to the piano player. Darius Smith‘s musical direction adds richness to the show beyond simply accompanying McQueen. Especially powerful is Waters’ descriptions of her unfair treatment at the hands of unscrupulous white people, underscored by a slow, chilling rendition of “Dixieland.” Goosebumps.
Overall, this is a powerful show, beautifully presented. I recommend it very highly.
HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW plays through March 26. Many of the performances are already sold out, so act fast! Details and tickets here.
Photo credit: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv