The portrayal is off-key

Though the singing is fine, Ethel Waters isn't the woman depicted in "Ethel!"

Posted: February 25, 2012

Once you're gone, so are your rights to the way you're portrayed. The sleazy Roy Cohn isn't around to contest the character Tony Kushner assigns him in Angels in America (or my one-word characterization), and none of the Scottsboro Boys, from the recent musical about a horrible piece of '30s American history, can challenge their stage depictions.

That brings us directly to the Walnut Street Theatre, where the late Ethel Waters is playing again, sort of, for the first time since 1949, when she was on the main stage in A Member of the Wedding. Now, on the third-floor stage in the Walnut's Independence Studio series, the singer, actress, and barrier-breaker is being re-enlivened by Broadway's talented Terry Burrell (Threepenny Opera, Into the Woods, Dreamgirls), who's written Ethel!, a one-woman show she delivers with oomph and vigor - and a questionable depiction.

Her Ethel Waters, born of a rape at knifepoint in Chester, raised by a grandmother on Clifton Street in Center City and a hit singer in Harlem clubs in her mid-20s, is not the generally humble person portrayed here in recent years in another one-woman show called His Eye Is on the Sparrow, named for one of Waters' great gospel songs. Maybe that Ethel Waters wasn't so true-to-life, either.

In Burrell, we have a completely different Waters. Ethel! plays on the performer's reputation for distrusting white theater managers and some white colleagues (with justification), for suffering fools unhappily, and for doing things her own way.

Instead of Waters at the end of her life in 1977 when she'd become a star again with the Billy Graham Crusade - Burrell cleverly anticipates that - Ethel! shows us a younger, more vital woman in the 1940s, at an apartment in Harlem. This allows Burrell to plumb Waters' career when she was down and out and being hounded for back taxes, before her career revived. Up to this point, she'd been a performer with many firsts - among them, the first black actress to star in a Broadway play (Mamba's Daughters in 1939) and to appear with an otherwise all-white cast (As Thousands Cheer in 1933), as well as a big Columbia Records star.

What we get from Burrell, who, with hair pulled back, looks much as Waters did in mid-career, is a girlish woman who tells stories on herself in a haughty black-mama style popular in current film comedies: pursed lips, chin jutting defiantly to and fro, and a surfeit of att-ee-tood.

Burrell's script gets the anecdotes right. But the portrayal, as entertaining as it is under Kenneth L. Robertson's direction, is time-warped; it doesn't seem real. The singing certainly does - backed surely by Aaron Graves on keyboards and Andrew Nelson on bass. Burrell delivers Waters best when she's singing "Stormy Weather," "Cabin in the Sky" and other songs Waters made famous. That's when I thought Ethel Waters was once again at the Walnut.


Ethel!

Through March 11 at Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $30. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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