His Eye Is On the Sparrow
by Meg Currell
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Maiesha McQueen as Ethel Waters and Darius Smith
Ethyl Waters was a jazz, blues and ragtime singer who was part of the Harlem Renaissance, a performer of such affecting depth she was nominated for an Academy Award. Her life is traced in “His Eye is on the Sparrow” at the Ellyn Bye Studio at The Armory. It’s the stirring story of a brutal childhood and ascendance to fame, a life marked by tragedy and determination.
Playing Waters is Maiesha McQueen, last seen in Portland in the magnificent “Ain’t Misbehavin'” a few years ago. “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is a one-woman (plus onstage accompanist) show, but the play invites the unseen members of Waters’ life onstage, and we are treated to an expansive and tender tour of Waters’ life.
McQueen has that rare ability to hold a room full of people in the palm of her hand. With a mezzo-soprano capable of big bottom notes and delicate top notes, she is an actor of penetrating talent. This is a quiet play, emotionally intimate, tracing the painful life of a woman from childhood to a triumphant performance at Madison Square Garden.
McQueen takes us through this wrenching story with grace and talent, and obvious respect for Waters’ tenacity and spirit. Her performances of “Am I Blue,” “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky” are among the most wrenching I’ve heard.
After she was discovered, Ethyl Waters performed all over the eastern U.S., including states inflicting segregation on people of color. Waters was threatened with physical harm for asking for one theater’s piano to be tuned; in another place in the South, the lynched body of her neighbor’s child was thrown into the lobby where she was performing. Stories that once would have seemed distant and ancient suddenly feel present, urgent in our country’s current state, and Waters’ story, even more moving as a result.
The best moments were when Waters was sharing her faith, first as a young Catholic school student having the rare experience of receiving kindness from a nun; and then singing the hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” her beloved and ailing grandmother. Finally, after she has gone through epic highs in life and harrowing lows, she comes back to God literally through the back door of the Billy Graham evangelical crusade and sings to the massive crowd assembled at Madison Square Garden. McQueen conveys Waters’ exultation amid great personal pain in a moment of breathtaking beauty. McQueen’s performance is raw and lavish and divine.
“His Eye is on the Sparrow” is a chance to learn about a great American singer, and to my mind even more importantly, an opportunity to experience the brilliant talent of Maiesha McQueen.