His Eye is on the Sparrow at Portland Center Stage
I was glad I knew nothing about Ethel Waters before going to see His Eye is on the Sparrow in the
Ellen Bye Theater at Portland Center Stage Friday night. Oh, I knew she was a singer who had popularized wonderful old songs like “Stormy Weather” and “Am I Blue.” I knew she played Berenice in The Member of the Wedding. But I knew nothing about her life.
It was wonderful to sit in that intimate theater and watch her story unfold through narration and song. His Eye is on the Sparrow, written by Larry Parr, is essentially a one-woman show (I say essentially because she’s accompanied by a piano player), in which Ms.Waters, played by Maiesha McQueen, guides us through her troubled childhood, her sad young life as a grudging teen bride, her surprise rise to stardom accompanied by feelings of inadequacy in the face of the racism and sexism all around her, her seclusion as an older woman followed by her return as a gospel singer – and most of all, her songs.
Fabulous songs. “Heatwave.” “Old Man Harlem.” “Franky and Johnny.” “Black and Blue.” Songs beautifully performed by Maiesha McQueen in a voice that ranges from sweet to deep to playful to mournful, and a performance that, above all, rings authentic. One of the biggest pitfalls of a show like this one is inauthenticity, and McQueen’s performance is not a modern take and not a pastiche. It’s the real deal.
I loved the whole of McQueen’s performance. She’s funny and heartbreaking and brassy and dynamic and again, again, so authentic. Authentic to the time period(s) and authentic to the human experience.
I have to admit I don’t tend to be interested in stars or the lives of stars. Packed houses on concert tours and actors’ searches for that perfect movie role aren’t stories that move me. But His Eye is on the Sparrow is not a play about stardom. It’s a story about human relationships, the struggle to make connection. It’s a story about race, and the ways people internalize the unfair inequality around them. It’s a story about womanhood.
And OK, yes, I lied: it’s a story about stardom. But what that particular thread in the production said to me had little to do with stardom, per se. Stories about stars are often about persistence. How they struggle to realize their full potential, how they persevere to reach that place in the spotlight. The Ethel Waters I saw last night at Portland Center Stage seemed to have the spotlight handed to her in a gift-wrapped box, and the persistence that marked her life centered around other things. Real things. Most of all, simply the struggle to feel equal in the world.
As I left the theater, a phrase kept playing in my head. She was a star, and she just wanted to be on par.
Silly rhyme notwithstanding, this was the takeaway that stuck with me the most. She had achieved so much – stints on Broadway and the concert stage, appearances in the movies and on TV, record contracts; she was the second African American woman nominated for an Academy Award (Pinky) and the first African American woman to have a lead role in a television series (Beulah) – and she still felt less than. Less than her fellow man. Less than her fellow White man.
When she persisted, she was called difficult. And perhaps she was. But these were difficult times for Black women. Still are. I can’t help it: my mind goes to the recent Senate Judiciary hearings on Jeff Sessions and two women’s voices (Elizabeth Warren’s and Coretta Scott King’s) silenced in their attempt to speak truth about racism. Nevertheless, she persisted. This is what Ethel Waters does throughout her story. She persists. Not toward the kind of achievement that wants to be measured in Academy Awards and television ratings and Twitter followers, but toward authenticity.
Somewhere in the second half, I was compelled to fish a pen out of my purse and scribble on the back of my program a line Waters says. She’s describing White people and the line is both biting and sympathetic. “Their souls have been pushed down somehow.”
This felt so true and so ironic. With all the efforts, conscious and unconscious, that White America has made to put themselves – ourselves – above, our souls have been pushed down.
But what happens during the play: you feel lifted up. By Ethel Waters’ music, her truth, her hilarious barbs, her persistence. And it isn’t just her. I said before, His Eye is on the Sparrow is essentially a one-woman show. Maiesha McQueen’s partner on stage is Darius Smith. Beyond being musical director of the production, he plays the piano for her performance beautifully, but his presence is more than that. From the way he escorts her through the theater in the opening of each act, to his quiet attentiveness to her performance, Smith seems to be some sort of opposite Greek chorus. Rather than commenting on the action, telling the story for her, he listens. He sits back and actively lets her tell her truth. He attends with grace and respect, and with this, he seems to represent that something that Ethel Waters always deserved.