She was known for her inimitable, husky-voiced version of “His Eye Is on The Sparrow.”
In her billowing, tentlike dresses and matching headscarves, she expressed it with wonder, as if it were a children’s story, making it a favorite feature of evangelist Billy Graham’s revival meetings.
But as Terry Burrell informs us in “Ethel,” her one-woman Alliance Theatre show about the legendary diva Ethel Waters, the singer and actress was much more than an eccentric songbird who made occasional TV appearances.
Like her blues contemporaries Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, like Frank Sinatra, Anita O’Day, Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook, Waters (1896-1977) was an acting singer: a vocalist who imbued her art with all the sadness and despair, joy and happiness she could wring from her own experiences.
By the time we meet Waters in Burrell’s biographical play with music, directed by Kenneth L. Roberson on the Alliance’s Hertz Stage, it is 1949. And the woman who first crooned Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” and starred in Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 movie musical, “Cabin in the Sky,” is traveling light and living in Harlem.
Fielding phone calls from bill collectors and unpacking her bags, Burrell’s Waters takes us on an unsentimental journey down the back alleys and thorny paths of her life so far. On opening night, it took a few minutes for the show to find its rhythm. But it picked up considerably the minute Waters got off her money woes and burrowed down deep into her sorrowful, Dickensian childhood and her troubled marriages — the first at age 13.
She was the result of a rape when her mother was 12. Born of an act of violence, she felt her mother couldn’t stand the sight of her. Left to nurture her were Catholic nuns and her grandmother, a live-in domestic who brought the little girl scraps of food from the white household where she worked.
In one very poignant episode, Waters remembers her grandmother’s death: She weighed 60 pounds, there was a hole in her back from cancer, and Waters sang her to sleep with a spiritual.
Burrell, who has enjoyed a distinguished stage career on Broadway and in regional theater, is a marvelous storyteller and a beautiful singer. But she is no mimic.
Instead of depicting Waters as the matronly figure she became, she shows her bawdy side, dancing and singing her way through 17 of Waters’ trademark tunes: an evocative “Am I Blue,” a wistful “Trav’lin’ Light,” an exquisite “Dinah,” a tropical “Heat Wave” and a suggestive “Come Up and See Me Sometime.”
Along the way, we hear about the celebrity’s Jim Crow-era troubles in Macon, the lessons she learned from Sophie Tucker (and vice versa), and her disdain for Lena Horne, who co-opted “Stormy Weather” for her 1943 film of the same name.
I’ve seen a few musical biographies in my time — many of them flimsy, frivolous affairs heavy on gossipy one-liners and lean on honesty and insight. Happily, Burrell eschews hagiography in favor of revelations about lesbian love, racial discrimination and addiction. (No, Waters did not succumb to booze and drugs. She bought clothes on credit and insisted on surrounding herself with fine things.)
By the end of the night, Waters is out the door on a wing and a promise. Still to come are the films “Pinky” (for which she will receive an Academy Award nomination) and “A Member of the Wedding.” She’ll have to wait another eight years for her first Billy Graham gig.
To say that Waters had a full, rich life is putting it mildly. She was big and complicated, and it’s a pleasure to see Burrell take off the white gloves and the minks, and give this towering figure her due.
Through April 24. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Performance for school and senior groups: 11 a.m. April 6. (Call 404-733-4661 for info.) $20-$39. Alliance Theatre, Hertz Stage, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: The juicy side of Ethel Waters, with music.