Healing Waters: From Poverty to Stardom

By Michael Nichols

You could call her journey a “Cinderella story…” That is, maybe, if Cinderella had been born black, to a traumatized mother, raised poor, alone, and hounded by hunger, only to rise to the pinnacle of American stardom.

Fourteen years since its World Premiere right here at FST, Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow returns with a powerful musical biography celebrating the real life story of actress and singer Ethel Waters.

From abject poverty to Broadway and Hollywood stardom, Ethel Waters crossed racial barriers to become a legend. No matter what challenges she faced, music gave Waters strength, solace, and success.

“In high school, I read Ethel Waters’ autobiography,” shared Sarasota playwright Larry Parr. “The book was a revelation to me because it was before the Civil Rights Movement and I was very ignorant about what went on in the real world. I carried the book around in my heart for decades.”

The success of Parr’s play attests to his ability to translate the pain, power, longing, and love of a black woman who began her musical career in the 1920s for a modern audience. Among his other accolades, including  Kansas City’s Drama Desk Award for Best Musical, Larry Parr is the first white playwright ever to have work produced in the National Black Theatre Festival with the 1995 production of My Castle’s Rockin’.

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Jannie Jones in FST’s World Premiere production of Ethel Waters (2005). Photo by Forrest MacDonald.

After its World Premiere at FST in 2005, Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow went on to play to critical acclaim across the nation. According to Director Kate Alexander, the musical drama is returning to FST at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.

“Witnessing the journey that Waters goes on as she overcomes hardships, poverty, and a deeply racist culture to achieve her ‘voice’ is inspiring,” shared Alexander. “Even when the odds were formidable, she sought to find her authentic ‘self’ and share it with the world.”

After back-to-back seasons of hit Cabarets (Guitar Girls and Blue Suede Shoes) Jannie Jones moves to the Mainstage to take on the emotionally- and spiritually-charged role of Ethel Waters. Critics raved about Jones’ first interpretation of the role in 2005, calling it “Dynamic” and “Passionate.” But the powerhouse vocalist has made it clear that playing Ethel Waters is not about the acclaim, but is a deeply personal experience.

“I have the deepest gratitude for all the struggles Ethel Waters endured,” said Jones. “Because of Waters, and other African-Americans of that era, I can perform on Broadway in substantial, compelling roles.”

Sharing some of Ethel Waters’ most intimate moments, Jones sings soulful renditions of songs including “St. Louis Blues,” “Stormy Weather,” and “Heat Wave” among other classics. Watch as Waters goes from performing in dingy clubs along the Vaudeville Circuit to starring in Hollywood hits like Pinky and Cabin in the Sky.

Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow begins in FST’s Keating Theatre June 26. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.