An aging Ethel Waters (Maiesha McQueen) sits in her living room, afghan draped across her knees, one delicate hand resting in her lap and the other on her Bible. She wears a cotton house dress with pockets and old lady shoes. And the story begins…in 1896…in a place called “whore’s alley”, Philadelphia, where Ethel Waters was born the child of a 12-year-old rape victim.
Larry Parr’s play His Eye Is on the Sparrow, now running at Portland Center Stage, tells Ethel Waters’ story from a childhood where her mother was more a sister than a mother to becoming one of the best paid entertainers of her generation.
Theatre-goers will remember Maiesha McQueen from the PCS production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ last season. In this one-woman show directed by Timothy Douglas, McQueen, accompanied by music director Darius Smith, owns the stage as she portrays the life of a woman who fought the odds, hit some very high peaks, and suffered the lowest of lows.
Ethel Waters should not have been famous. For many years she barely had enough to eat. What she did have were a strong will, courage, an incredible voice, and a smidgen of good education from a Catholic school she attended briefly as a child–a school where she felt safe and nurtured for the first time in her life. McQueen does Waters proud, covering everything from the sweet, silly songs of the 1920s and ’30s to the torchy “Stormy Weather” and Fats Waller’s heartrending “Black and Blue”.
The music of different eras and genres is entwined with a stirring range of life stories as Waters moves from hotel maid to vaudeville performer, from the Cotton Club to Broadway, and even Hollywood. While Waters’ character flaws are as obvious in the play as her many talents, she owns them big and loud. Some would simply call her behavior being true to oneself.
This remarkable story, along with Hold These Truths and Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin this season continue what PCS Artistic Director Chris Coleman calls “our conversation about our culture’s relationship with the outsider.” It is playing in the Ellyn Bye Studio at the Armory, and its run has been extended through March 26.