The Philly-area theatre pays tribute to Waters, who rose from poverty in the City of Brotherly Love to play Broadway and snag an Academy Award nomination in Hollywood — a rarity for African-American performers at the time.
The play's title is also the title of the late Waters' autobiography — as well as the title of a beloved spiritual, which was a Waters signature.
Portraying Ethel Waters in the intimate one-woman biography will be two-time Tony Award nominee Ernestine Jackson. Jackson was nominated for Leading Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Sister Sarah Brown in the all-black cast of Guys and Dolls, and as Supporting Actress in a Musical in the original production of Raisin, the musical based on Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Jackson revisited Raisin to critical acclaim in the fall 2006 Chicago revival.
Opening of Ethel Waters is Jan. 25. This is the play's second production and its Northeast premiere.
"Born the daughter of a 12-year-old rape victim in Chester, PA, in 1896, Ethel Waters grew up living in poverty in Philadelphia — occasionally stealing food, milk or money, and at times sleeping on grates in the streets to keep warm in winter," according to production notes. "But in her early teens she found music, and her singing career propelled her from seedy jazz clubs, to Broadway stages, to the silver screen and Hollywood, where she became only the second African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award." Ethel Waters, His Eye Is On the Sparrow premiered in October 2005 at the Florida Studio Theatre. Parr's script places Waters in a late phase of her career, performing as a featured singer with Billy Graham's evangelical crusades. As she recounts the hardships and successes of her life, she interjects performances of songs that she helped make classics: "Stormy Weather," "Black and Blue," "Taking a Chance On Love," and of course her signature number "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."
A native Floridian, Parr's Sparrow is his third play in a series of vehicles spotlighting African-American performers, including jazz singer Alberta Hunter and the first black woman to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel.
The production is the third in BRT's 20th anniversary season and is directed by founding producing director Susan D. Atkinson. The creative team includes lighting designer Rob Crane, set designer Marion Powell and costume designer Linda Bee Stockton.
Musical director (and on-stage pianist) is David Alan Bunn.
The director said in a statement, "It's very exciting to me to be directing the story of an important figure from our region. Our first production in 1987 was The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, a celebrated author and long-time Bucks County resident. I'm so pleased that in our 20th anniversary season we can continue our tradition of telling stories of local and regional significance."
Bristol Riverside Theatre is located at 120 Radcliffe Street, in Historic Bristol Borough. For information call (215) 785-0100, or visit www.BRTstage.org.
Ethel Waters' Broadway credits included At Home Abroad, As Thousands Cheers, The Member of the Wedding (for which she won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award) and Cabin in the Sky, among others. She appeared in the film versions of Cabin in the Sky and The Member of the Wedding. In 1949 she was Academy Award-nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the film "Pinky." She also starred in the 1950s TV series, "Beulah," but quit because she felt the scripts were degrading to blacks. She died in 1977 of heart disease.