Terry Burrell spent many years researching and creating this tribute to the life of Ethel Waters, and it is quite a winner. Ethel Waters was born into poverty in 1896 in Pennsylvania. She knew she wanted to sing and be on stage, but couldn’t have imagined what joy and pain it might bring.
I am not a big fan of one-actor shows, as too many of them seem to get a bit boring. Not this one. The stage is set as a room in her home, and she moves around in it as well as the open areas; as she goes through many scenes without a problem. Ethel Waters had quite a life which included dysfunctional family, being married off at age 12, physical abuse, multiple marriages, and unethical treatment by associates and those who hired her to perform.
She kept on going and started on stage at age 17 when she was singing in Baltimore. In her 80 years, she won quite a few awards and was highly sought after for her talents. When she was working in black vaudeville shows, she was generally cheated out of most of the money which should have accrued for her. And, she lived through the days of terrible segregation in our land. Harlem was for the blacks, and not for the ofays nor the hoi-polloi. But, as we know, that did start to change during her days.
Terry relates her story as Ethel’s biography and weaves in 17 of the numbers which Ethel was known for. These include such standards at You Rascal You, St. Louis Blues, Dinah and Stormy Weather. She is backed up by Tyrone Jackson on the keyboard and Scott Glazer on bass. Kenneth L. Roberson directed the show and every aspect of it works perfectly.
I do know that this is not the only play about Ethel’s life and career; but it is the best I have seen. This woman was feisty, took on the big shots and wound up eventually winning. Most black performers in her days hard a hard time getting good agents. They were often booked through organizations which took unfair advantage of them. It was not so many years ago that there was a hotel near The Fox which refused to rent to blacks, and while many performed in Vegas they were often told to stay in trailers behind the hotels. We may have come a long way from those days but the trip to total acceptance and equality is still not reached. As we heard in South Pacific, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” Maybe some of our politicians could benefit from understanding those lyrics.
Bottom line is that this is a very entertaining and thought provoking performance by an amazing actor who can recall almost two hours of words when most of us can’t remember what the date may be.