Larry Parr’s Play, HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW

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.

 

Larry Parr’s HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW at Portland Center Stage

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.

 

Congratulations to Eaton Literary Agency’s client, Rhonda Kazmirski, for the upcoming release of her new novel.

Congratulations to Rhonda Kazmirski, one of Eaton Literary Agency’s talented authors. Her novel, SHADOW OF EVIL, was recently acquired by Commonwealth Books and will soon be published.

 

SHADOW OF EVIL is the story of a family entrenched in Washington who is threatened from within by terrorist and the terrifying episode they faced.

 

Ms. Kasmirski’s novel is an electric read, a page-turner that will keep you reading until late at night. It also addresses many of the problems we as a nation face today.

 

Congratulations again to Ms. Kazmirski and that powerhouse literary agency, Eaton Literary Agency.

Prestigious Eaton Literary Agency’s Annual Awards Deadline Approaching

Eaton Literary Agency’s prestigious Annual Awards Program. The deadline for scripts under 10,000 words is fast approaching.

Eaton Literary Agency accepts manuscripts throughout the year.  They say, “We try to report on your material within three weeks of receiving it.  We have developed a system of grading the manuscripts for awards purposes, so we do not tie up submissions for the duration of the awards program.”

>        A $2,500.00 (US) prize will be awarded to the winner of our book-length program, open to all unpublished fiction or nonfiction over 10,000 words.  Manuscripts must be postmarked by August 31, 2019, and the prize winner will be notified in September, 2019.

  • A $500.00 (US) prize will be awarded to the winner of our short story and article program, open to any unpublished short story or nonfiction work less than 10,000 words.   Manuscripts must be postmarked by March 31, 2019, and the prize winner will be notified in April, 2019.

You can send manuscripts either via email, in doc, docx, or pdf format, to eatonlit@aol.com, or you can send a hard copy to:

Eaton Literary Agency

P. O. Box 49795

Sarasota, FL 34230

 

Please visit their website: http://www.eatonliterary.com

Playwright Larry Parr’s HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW, The Story Of Ethel Waters

Maiesha McQueen Delivers Transcendent Performance in Ethel Waters Portrait HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW, at Portland Center Stage

by Krista Garver BroadwayWorld.com

 

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!.

Playwright Larry Parr’s HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW

BWW Review: Maiesha McQueen Delivers Transcendent Performance in Ethel Waters Portrait HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW, at Portland Center Stage

by Krista Garver BroadwayWorld.com Feb. 20, 2017

Tweet Share

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