For millions who watched the Billy Graham Crusades, the name Ethel Waters is familiar as one of Graham’s most faithful comrades, a woman so close to Graham that she called him her son. “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” sung in her throaty contralto, became the African-American singer’s theme and as much defined her as did George Beverly Shea’s “How Great Thou Art.” Her beatific smile and powerful stage presence established her as a woman who was close to God.
But as Triad Stage’s Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow shows us, Ethel Waters’ life was far more complex than the TV/gospel image. Ethel Waters, directed by Donna Baldwin-Bradby, shows us that complex life. And it’s a production that will entertain you, enlighten you, and inspire you.
Cassandra Lowe Williams is Waters: as a child, precocious teenager, and groundbreaking adult singer and actor. It’s a hefty part for one woman, but Williams accomplishes it as she relates in song and narration the rocky road this entertainment powerhouse traveled on the path to fame.
There are, however, two people in this one-woman show. George A. Pass, II, music director and piano player, is as much a presence as Williams, for without his seemingly effortless virtuosity on the baby grand, this show would surely suffer. Listen carefully to this master of the ivories. The music is so closely integrated into the narration, vocals, and bridges that Pass becomes practically invisible. This is high praise in a production where everything is out front: wardrobe changes, scene transitions, and the piano itself.
Even the recorded music by Pass before and after the show and during intermission strikes the heartstrings. It’s no wonder Pass has played for such gospel greats as BeBe and CeCe Winans, Yolanda Adams, and Billy Preston.
George Pass is a Greensboro pastor, and Cassandra Williams is a former Southeast High School theater teacher. These two make Greensboro proud in this production.
Ethel Waters is no Southern-gospel, Bible-thumping play. Philadelphia-ghetto raised (by a grandmother and a rarely present addict mother), Waters had a childhood whose details, at times, brought groans from the audience. Tortuous narrative notwithstanding, the songs in this play are an early 20th-century showcase and reason to see the show in themselves — blues, gospel, and jazz standards from 1912 until mid-century, all of which Waters performed during her nearly 50-year career. Irving Berlin (“Heat Wave”), Fats Waller (“Black and Blue”), and Ted Koehler “Stormy Weather”) are all represented. It might surprise many theatergoers to know that Waters introduced many of the songs that Williams sings.
One must save one’s pipes when singing parts (or all) of 15 songs, plus narration. Cassandra Williams never really belts the blues, but she can be forgiven for understatement when there are two shows in one day, as there were this past Sunday.
As penned by playwright Larry Parr, Ethel Waters is not just the biography of this monumental voice, groundbreaker, and acting talent — it’s also the story of a young minister named Billy Graham, also destined for fame, who saw a wounded soul and took it under his wing. Graham must have known, somehow, that Waters needed what his ministry offered; and in reaching out to her, he touched a new African-American audience in an era rife with division and hatred. The combination of the two personalities not only created a dynamic team but, in Waters’ own words, completed a life that, while it had entertained so many people, left her own heart empty and unfulfilled.
The Rev. Billy Graham is represented in recordings and in old photos projected through a luminescent sheer curtain backdrop, as are many of the scenes of Waters’ early life and nightclub gigs. All in black and white, this technique is brilliantly done.
Graham’s presence permeates the final moments of this work, for it is he who finally breaks through to Waters. But it is Cassandra Williams as Waters who breaks through to the audience. The pain and isolation that Waters felt until the moment she let God in is agonizingly recreated. Williams shows us the gleaming pearly whites that Waters always displayed in public and also the expressions of anguish that abuse and discrimination etched into her face.
Williams’ ability to express emotions through expressions might be one of her most obvious gifts. It’s a talent that could easily slip into hyperbole, but Cassandra Williams controls it like the pro she is, having played with several regional troupes, including Actors Theatre of Charlotte and the North Carolina Touring Theatre.
When seeing this play, your eye, as well, will be on the sparrows that fly overhead in another one of Triad Stage’s understated and inimitably elegant scenic details. And your eyes might well be filled with tears after such moving and powerful performances by two of Greensboro’s own.
Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow continues Tuesday-Sunday through May 2nd at Triad Stage. For details, see our theater calendar.