Bringing Ethel to Life

Ethel Waters’ determination and dynamic voice enabled her to escape the slums of Philadelphia and become a Broadway and Hollywood star. The road to success was anything but easy – she overcame racism, abuse, and violence along the way. FST favorite Jannie Jones brings Larry Parr’s powerful musical biography Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow to life this summer in a performance critics are calling “Inspiring” and “Sensational.”

We sat down with Jannie to talk about how Ethel Waters’ story has impacted her, her relationship with playwright Larry Parr, and how she has changed since last portraying Ethel onstage.

Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow has been held over by popular demand and is now playing in FST’s Keating Theatre through August 10. For tickets and more information, click here.

You performed in FST’s World Premiere production of Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow in 2005. What was that experience like? 

It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  This play touches a chord in me that no other piece has ever done.  Larry wrote the perfect piece that enables me to share my strengths as an actress and singer, and allows me to bring my audiences along with me on this mind-boggling journey.

How are you feeling about returning to the role?

I am very excited for new audiences to be engulfed in this incredible story about an African American icon, and I’m thrilled for previous audiences to take this journey with me once again.

FST and its audiences were so welcoming and embraced me with open arms last time.  I hope to touch their hearts and souls as I share this unbelievable journey of a supremely talented and strong woman whose shoulders I stand on.

What did it mean to you as a performer and an African American woman to play Waters?

As an African American woman, I have the deepest gratitude for all of the struggles that Ethel Waters endured. She fought hard to play roles other than maids, with lines like “Yes’em” and “No’em.” Because of her and other African Americans of that era, I am now able to star on Broadway with a strong storyline. Writers are crafting plays and musicals with much more diversity and audiences are wholeheartedly embracing them.

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Jannie Jones. Photo by Matthew Holler.

How have you changed as a person and performer since the first time you performed Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow at FST?

As a person, I have always wanted to provide a joyful escape to my audiences and encouragement to my friends and loved ones – I remain as such.  As a performer, I have grown each time I do a different body of work.  I’ve done many more productions that have allowed me to hone my craft and take it to the next level.  I’m excited about immersing myself in Ethel Waters and finding new layers to convey her journey.  It is my hope that this will be the best production of Ethel that I’ve ever done.

Do you still find that you can relate to Ethel Waters? 

I can definitely relate to her.  Ethel Waters fought against racism and for the opportunity to perform in non-stereotypical roles. Today, women are fighting for equal pay for equal work, and more leading roles in film and TV. Hollywood said that a film led by African Americans would not sell, until Black Panther, which broke box office records worldwide.

Unfortunately, racism is still a factor in today’s world and continues to endure worldwide. I’m grateful for the progress we’ve made since Ethel’s time, like desegregation, but we still have a very long way to go.

Ethel Waters experienced some incredibly difficult obstacles as a young woman. How do you convey the depth of what she experienced through the show’s music and narration?

I mentally put myself in the time period and draw from my own experiences being an African American woman growing up in the South. I become one with Ethel and I emotionally relive every obstacle and demonstrate it with my delivery. The audience relives it with me and look into the windows of her life and observe what happens. When Ethel is happy, and singing and dancing, I embody her glee, her joy. Playwright Larry Parr wrote a piece that explores the gamut of emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and humor – and mixes in Ethel’s religious roots, which I just love sharing with audiences.

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Jannie Jones. Photo by Matthew Holler.

You’ve performed in FST’s world premiere production of Ethel Waters as well as FST’s My Castle’s Rockin’ with Larry Parr. What do you love about his writing and working with Parr as a playwright?

I love Larry’s writing. He writes in a way that touches my soul. This play is a dream piece for any actress and singer, because it allows you to sink your teeth into each and every moment and release organic creativity.

Larry and I have been very good friends since I performed My Castle’s Rockin’ and our friendship and respect have only grown deeper over the years. I love working with him because he listens, welcomes my input, and remains open to suggestions or requests. We are always in sync, and he trusts me with this amazing piece! I think we have a bond that will last a lifetime.

Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow has been held over by popular demand and is now playing in FST’s Keating Theatre through August 10. For tickets and more information, click here.