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His Eye Is On The Sparrow Tells it Like it Was At MetroStage

Jordan Wright
January 2011
Special to The Alexandria Times

Bernardine Mitchell as Ethel Waters in His Eye is on the Sparrow at MetroStage photo credit: Colin Hovde

Bernardine Mitchell as Ethel Waters in His Eye is on the Sparrow at MetroStage photo credit: Colin Hovde

“It’s important that the truth come out,” insists Bernardine Mitchell, star of His Eye is on the Sparrow, MetroStage’s production of the life and music of Ethel Waters. So why is it that so few know the story of this pioneering icon of American jazz and early black entertainment? Perhaps it’s because it is borne out of a bleak period in American history that carries with it the indelible stain of racism. And perhaps because it was during segregation, when touring black performers were forced to rent rooms in whorehouses or sleep in local stables, to find medical treatment in mental institutions when hospitals were not open to blacks, were refused service in restaurants, and were under constant threat of lynching in the KKK-dominated South.

His Eye is on the Sparrow, by playwright Larry Parr, is a powerful drama threaded throughout with the sassy, suggestive music from the early 1920’s, performed in blues and jazz venues like the legendary Cotton Club, and the uplifting gospel spirituals Waters learned in her youth. It showcases over 15 songs from “Frankie and Johnny” and the 1933 Rudy Vallee/Hoagy Carmichael classic, “Old Man Harlem”, to Fats Waller’s “Cabin in the Sky”, sung by Waters in the hit 1940’s Broadway musical of the same name. Much of Water’s own recordings, considered historically significant by the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress and featuring such classics as “Am I Blue?”, “Stormy Weather” and “Dinah”, are included in the show’s repertoire.

The musical drama is based on the heartwrenching tale of Ethel Waters’ early life on Clifton Street in Philadelphia, growing up in what she refers to as a “whore’s alley” and sleeping on grates. Her life was circumscribed by a 13-year old mother, Ma Weasie, who brushed her off with the crack, “I birthed ya’. Ain’t that enough!”, and a grandmother who raised the illegitimate child to follow in her footsteps as a hotel maid. Later an cheating husband drove her into the streets where she began her singing career with the Negro vaudeville circuit known to outsiders as the Theatre Owners Booking Association but to the performers themselves as “Tough on Black Asses”.

Mitchell, who triumphed at MetroStage in another bio-musical, “Mahalia”, for which she won a Helen Hayes Award for her portrayal of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, dons her roles like a second skin as her lush contralto voice and commanding presence take the audience on a journey of pain, triumph and redemption they are powerless to refuse. In this one-woman show, she channels Waters who despite being battered, disowned, scammed by agents and club owners, and left for dead, rises from the ashes of her trials and tribulations with her indomitable spirit and belief in God.

Waters continued her legacy with television (yes, she was Beulah in the show of that name), the Broadway stage, where she won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Member of the Wedding with Julie Harris, and ultimate induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Christian Hall of Fame after she joined the evangelist Billy Graham in the 1950’s on his worldwide crusades.

Contributing to the mood of the piece are Dawn Axam’s smooth choreography, Jessica Winfeld’s lighting design, particularly effective in creating evocative scenes of the Old South and in a strobe-like recreation of an early motion picture, as well as pianist William Knowles skillful jazz and ragtime accompaniment.

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