Those already familiar with the awesome powers of the inimitable Bernardine Mitchell and have waited anxiously for her return to the metro area can breathe a sigh of relief. She’s back in a winning combination—Mitchell telling the story of Ethel Waters –it’s a no brainer. You gotta go.
Not that it’s a perfect show—there’s more exposition than some would rather sit through, but it’s a hallowed story wrapped in the glorious vocals, tender expressions and captivating style of Sistah Bernardine. It’s a blessing waiting to happen.
Long before she gained fame and fortune in Hollywood and became known for her signature songs, including ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow,’ Ethel Waters, performed as “Sweet Mama String Bean” in the old colored Vaudeville circuit. Yes, she was that skinny with a deeply resonant voice that mesmerized an audience. Bernardine Mitchell embodies the deep resonance of the vocal quality that relays years of struggle while she tells the story with passion and grace. Waters’ life, like a Langston Hughes’ poem, “Ain’t Been no Crystal Stair.” Far from it. And the script by Larry Parr, though pedantic at the end, effectively intertwines the many songs of the period with her story.
The unwanted and neglected result from a vicious rape of a 12-year old, Ethel Waters struggled all of her life with a sense of shame and unworthiness. A caring grandmother who “saw a light in her,” was her only consolation in dealing with harsh, even brutal living conditions. She won talent contests early and inched her way out of the squalor, all the while questioning her good fortune, assuming it wouldn’t last, even keeping her maid’s job available to fall back on. Parr’s script effectively tells the struggles of an early abusive marriage and Waters’ escape through her music, at one point, escaping literally from a threatening altercation with her white manager, captured nicely in Mitchell’s rendition of ‘Little Black Boy’.
After years toiling on the tough T.O.B.A (Theatre Owner’s Booking Associations), Waters started getting breaks and notoriety recording such staples as ‘Dinah’, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, and’ Stormy Weather’, all which Mitchell croons with superb delivery. A hell raiser and trail blazer, Waters was the first person of color featured on Broadway billboards equal with her white counterparts. Her work on Broadway is legendary. In one of Waters’ signature songs, Mitchell takes on the mannerisms of a distraught wife wringing a kitchen towel anguishing about her husband who will not be returning for ‘Suppertime’. The weirdly shadowed image of what happened to the husband is not particularly effective, but the sweet simplicity of the lyrics, the unassuming melody and Mitchell’s tender rendition bring the utter devastation to the forefront.
One of the several show stoppers is ‘Black and Blue’, where the song wraps around passages of text exposing the wretched cultural disparities of the time, inequities in treatment, and Waters’ own personal travails, all of which Mitchell captures and delivers in an amazing tour-de-force. When her voice crests and flows into a crescendo, there simply is nothing like it, and her commanding presence in a solo show showcases her inspiring gifts.
The second act depicts the struggle that Waters had wrestling with her own lack of self worth, her struggles in a white male dominated system, and her severe distrust of the managers who were notorious in cheating black performers. It’s a familiar story that has been told more effectively in other shows. Plus, the constant reference to her ailing mother who stays close to death for most of the act before she finally succumbs slows some of the scenes to a crawl. In addition to being redundant, it’s a structural flaw for the script to devote so much time to a pitiful and pitiable character who obviously meant much to Waters but who was unsympathetic in action and deed for us to care much for her feeble condition. Still, the charismatic power of Bernardine Mitchell pulls us through the potential morass along with deft direction by Gary Yates to bypass the pitfalls.
The script is also rather unimaginative when introducing the role of Billy Graham in Waters’ life with his several requests that she join his choir, but the compelling storyline makes it powerful nonetheless. It is only through her final acceptance of faith that Waters recognizes the interior emptiness that she has tried to fill all her life. When Mitchell puts on the pearly white choir robe at the end of the show that she wore in the opening, it’s a full circle healing experience–she makes it work. In all, Mitchell portrays the emotional resolve of a character who finally makes peace with herself after a lifetime of inner loneliness and discovers she can allow herself to love and be loved.
Why the signature song that serves as the show’s title, and is repeated in several beautiful reprises, was only given half of a sentence nod in the text is a final quibble I have with the script, but bringing the story of this legend to life more than makes up for the inadequacies. Thanks to Parr, we are able to bask in the presence of yet another nearly forgotten treasured artist, and this portrayal is a gift that can keep on giving.
Speaking of gifts, the steady and reliable William Knowles stepped in at the keyboard, replacing William Hubbard who is recuperating from a recent stroke, yet another precious reminder to be thankful for the moment, and how, if we’re fortunate, the show goes on.
And what a show it is indeed. Bernardine Mitchell is absolutely divine and her performance may as well be a ministry –she touches people, they leave transformed, mesmerized, and come back for more. All I can say is God Bless the Child because His Eye is on the Sparrow and the remarkable Bernardine Mitchell.
His Eye is on the Sparrow
written by Larry Parr
directed by Gary Yates
musical direction by S. Renee Clark
produced at MetroStage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins with one intermission
Michael Toscano . The Beacon
David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
Jolene Munch Cardoza . Washington Examiner
Brad Hathaway . ConnectionNewspapers
Jordan Wright . Alexandria Times
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post