In an article for Florida Studio Theatre’s recent staging of “Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” Michael Nichols wrote, “Since its 2005 debut, [this play] has sung hard truths, hopefulness, and the resilience of the human spirit across the nation.”
Jannie Jones originated the role, and she is now on stage at the new Capital Repertory Theatre, brilliantly embodying the life of African American singer and actor Ethel Waters (1896-1977).
Accompanied by pianist and musical director Josh D. Smith on 16 numbers, Jones artfully narrates the story of a baby who is born to a 12-year-old girl in Philadelphia; who is raised by her grandmother; who discovers at an early age a talent for singing and dancing, which leads to stardom in vaudeville, the movies, radio, TV, and Broadway; who discovers no talent for marriage; and who, after a decline, reaches glory once again as a featured performer in the Billy Graham Crusade in the 1960s.
But Larry Parr’s script is a heavy lift, as is sometimes the case with one-person shows, particularly those that start at the beginning of a subject’s life and go chronologically to the end.
Great care has been taken here by director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill and her production team to provide enough visuals (lighting shifts, costume changes, rear wall projections) so we feel a little less intensely the “And-then-I-did-this-and-then-I-did-that” nature of the storytelling; and Jones is such a gifted performer that, even when she is redundantly acting out what she is telling us, we are carried along by her energy and interaction with the audience. For example, near the end of the 100-minute show, when Waters mentions she has diabetes, I could hear a concerned intake of breath from the crowd — a mark of Jones’s skill in making us care.
And can Jones sing! Was Waters a baritone? In “Black and Blue,” one could swear as much. But can Jones hit high notes, full-throated? “This Joint Is Jumpin’ ” and the title song prove it.
For most of the evening I lived in my head, appreciatively so. I admired Smith’s artistry; I liked Mancinelli-Cahill’s blocking, making effective use of the whole stage; I was bowled over by Jones’ physical stamina, complementing her talent; and I intellectually took in the information as it was being told to me, the “hard truths” about sexism and racism that Ethel Waters’s experiences revealed about American life.
But I did become emotionally absorbed when we got to Waters’s later years, when the toll that childhood poverty, abandonment, sexism, and racism had taken on this woman became horribly apparent. Jones reveals the rage and loneliness that Waters experienced when the glitz was gone. I was glad that I could genuinely feel something at last, including Waters’ “resilience of the human spirit,” after an evening of appreciating. It seems to me that such moments are what really good theater is all about.
Welcome back, Capital Rep! Thank you for starting off this season with a play that explores important themes and showcases a terrific performer.
“Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow”
WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 251 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: through Sept. 26
HOW MUCH: $62-$27
MORE INFO: 518.445.7469, or capitalrep.org