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A chance opportunity at a night club while celebrating her seventeenth birthday won her the opportunity to sing two songs that led to her hire as a singer at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore

[Entertainment: Plays]

 

Sandra Reaves-Phillips heads the cast of “Sweet Mama Stringbean,” a musical based on the life of the legendary Ethel Waters. 

Born in Chester, Pennsylvania, in1896, to a 12 year old rape victim, Waters’ own childhood was filled with poverty and hardships. In fact, Waters led a life so devoid of motherly love, her only ambition as a young girl was to clean the homes of white people. 

 Never a child, Waters married when she was 13, thereby surviving what turned out to be a short term union with an abusive man. The rigors of her childhood bore little hint of the great singer and actress she was to become.  A chance opportunity at a night club while celebrating her seventeenth birthday won her the opportunity to sing two songs that led to her hire as a singer at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland.  Ethel was soon to escape the drudgery of her former life and in realizing this, Ethel never looked back.

“Sweet Mama Stringbean” sprung to life under the direction of Elizabeth Van Dyke who deftly told Water’s story through the eyes of her younger self, portrayed with vitality and style by the mother and daughter team of Marishka Shanice Phillips and Sandra Reeves Phillips who played the older Ethel. 


Both the young and seasoned Ethel melded together in song and dance to take the audience on a tour of Ethel’s youth.  A time tunnel filled with the seamy smoke-filled dives Ethel frequented as a honky tonk singer touring the South. Viewers were swept through a whirl of seedy clubs wherein Waters’ sang the blues, ballads, popular song and dance tunes of her era.  Darryl Jovan Williams was delightful in his role as the piano player stamping his own special pizzazz and facial expressions on the play, making him a standout in his various ensemble roles, especially in the dance number with the feathered boa.


Waters had little luck with men, ending her love affair with a drug addict around the end of World War I, when she moved to Harlem in 1919.  Actor Gary E. Vincent portrayed a love interest of Waters in a slick and smooth style that showcased the “Slick Willie” lothario types who crawled in and out of Waters’ life. 


Ms. Waters also took on her first blackface acting role in 1919 when she appeared in HELLO 1919 and became popular on the blues circuit that same year.  In 1925, she signed up to record for Columbia Records and did a stint on Broadway at the Plantation Club. By 1928, Waters was earning the unheard of salary for that period of $1,250.00. 


A year later, she made the song “AM I Blue?” her signature song.  As she forged her career she was soon performing with stars the likes of Duke Ellington. Cjay Hardy Philip was impressive in the role of Ethel’s mother and in her various ensemble roles as Ethel’s friend.  Her depiction of Ethel’s mother as a lost soul in a mental ward gave insight into the pain and depression both mother and daughter wrestled with their entire lives. 


By the 1930s, Waters appeared in an all-black film entitled “Rufus Jones for President.”  She also appeared in “As Thousands Cheer” on Broadway.  She starred in a national radio program while doing double duty on the nightclub circuits in the evening.  Although, she was hired for the starring role in the movie “Cabin in the Sky,” an all-black musical, she became jealous when the younger Lena Horne garnered attention in the film.  Her behavior on that film led to a decline in her career. 


However, in the 1940’s the talented performer was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in a 1949 film entitled “Pinky.”  In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Award for her performance in Member of the Wedding.  In 1950, she starred in a television series entitled Beulah, a role she later quit citing it as degrading.


With the help of Charles Samuels, Ethel penned her autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, and later in life turned to religion touring with Billy Graham.  Waters died in 1977, at the age of 80.


Van Dyke gives a wonderful historic perspective of Ethel Waters’ life, painting the portrait of a woman who was honed by the ravages of life.  Elizabeth’s direction digs deep into her subject’s psyche neither making her a saint nor a devil, just a mere woman, who rolled with the punches as she faced her destiny head on.  


This play is slated to end soon, so if you are an Ethel Waters fan or just a fan of historic profiles, get down to the New Federal Theatre soon and catch this worthwhile play.


 

 

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