By Michael Nichols and Becca Jennings
Blues music bubbled up from the American South in the 1870s, carrying the voices of former slaves and freed men to the swanky nightclubs of the North and Midwest in the early 20th century. Blues’ distinct sound and its emotional weight became the lifeblood of many African American singers and musicians. Actress and singer Ethel Waters was one of them. It was this music that launched Waters’ career in the 1920s, transporting her from a life of poverty to Broadway and silver screen stardom.
Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow by Larry Parr tells the true, heartfelt, and commanding story of Waters’ musical and personal journey.
“In high school, I read Ethel Waters’ autobiography,” shared 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.”
It was this book that would later inspire Parr to author a play paying tribute to Waters’ incredible career.
Florida Studio Theatre played a key role in helping Parr advance this play from concept into its final form and spotlight. It was FST’s own Producing Artistic Director, Richard Hopkins, who called Parr in 2003, encouraging him to write that play about the life and music of Ethel Waters. Parr accepted Hopkins’ challenge.
“I read everything I could about Ethel and talked to people who knew her,” said Parr. “Every day, I listened to her music and thought, ‘Now, what songs will help me tell this part of her life?’”
Once the play was drafted, FST stepped in to support Parr again, holding near weekly readings of the play in an intense development process, until the musical arrived at completion.
Then, in 2005, FST produced the World Premiere of the production starring FST favorite Jannie Jones as Ethel Waters. Called “Soul-stirring” by Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and “Remarkable” by Pelican Press, the production was a hit with FST audiences.
Now, fourteen years later, Jones will return to the emotionally-charged role in this summer’s production.
“She is a towering talent who grabs theatergoers’ hearts and doesn’t let go,” said Parr of Jones. “She loves the story of Ethel Waters and is always anxious to perform this play. I am so grateful to have someone of her stature in my corner.”
“We have had a long relationship with both Parr and Jones,” said Hopkins. “It is only fitting that the revival will be directed by another FST favorite, Kate Alexander.”
Director Kate Alexander hopes the audiences will feel the heart of the play, learning more about the life of Ethel Waters and her impact.
“Witnessing Waters’ journey as she overcomes hardships, poverty, and a deeply racist culture to reach the pinnacle of American stardom is inspiring,” said Alexander. “Every step of the way, music is her guide. This is a deep hero’s journey in which the odds are formidable, and Ethel Waters is a true heroine.”
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.