A Play’s Journey: The Beginnings of the Ethel Waters Story

By Michael Nichols

The seeds for Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow were planted in playwright Larry Parr’s heart at a young age. In high school, he discovered Ethel Waters’ autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, which he found to be very impactful.

Little did Parr know at the time that, as a playwright, he would go on to create not just one, but three, musical dramas about African American women, including one about Ethel Waters. His plays Hi-Hat Hattie (which tells Hattie McDaniel’s story) and My Castle’s Rockin’ (which focuses on Alberta Hunter) have won numerous awards and the invaluable acclaim of the African American theatre community.

After writing Hi-Hat Hattie and My Castle’s Rockin’, Parr was ready for a change in his creative direction. “Since I had written two musical biographies already, I wasn’t really considering writing another one,” Parr admitted. But it seemed the universe had other ideas for the playwright.

Parr, a Sarasota resident, had swapped places with his friend who was living in New York City, so they could both get some vacation time.

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

“While I was in New York, my visiting friend was walking Lido Beach one day, and struck up a conversation with a couple who were also visiting from New York City,” explained Parr. They ended up being producers who had recently visited Florida Studio Theatre and learned about Parr and his plays. “The couple really wanted to talk to me,” said Parr.

After this chance meeting, the couple called Parr and told him that if he would write a third musical biography about an African American woman, they would consider all three plays for production.

The very next day, FST Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins also reached out to Parr, asking him to consider a commission to write a play about Ethel Waters. But just in case Parr didn’t get the message, there was still one more sign waiting for him.

“Around that time, my secretary went to Cassadaga, Florida, a small community known as ‘The Psychic Capital of the World,’” continued Parr. “She came back and said her reading was not about her, but about me, and that I should move forward with the project being offered me!”

And so he did.

Since its 2005 debut, Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow has sung hard truths, hopefulness, and the resilience of the human spirit across the nation.

Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow begins in FST’s Keating Theatre on June 28. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here or call 941-366-9000.