Make no mistake; Terry Burrell is a quadruple-threat: actor, singer, dancer, and playwright. She devised Ethel -- a tribute to the legendary African-American singer and actress Ethel Waters -- that is now playing in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre, in only its second incarnation since debuting in Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater.
Ethel Waters was such a force in music, stage, film, and television, with links to most of the major performers of her day [from Bessie Smith to Sophie Tucker; from Harold Arlen to Irving Berlin and Fletcher Henderson to Duke Ellington], and influenced other singers like Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eartha Kitt. --- And though she was one of the best paid performers in New York in the 1930s, performed in both Black and White vaudeville circuits (helping to break the color barrier there), appeared in major roles on Broadway, had a long recording contract with Columbia Records, and was the second African American to receive an Academy Award nomination, nonetheless some thought her stage and film roles were "demeaning stereotypical maids and housekeepers" and that "singing white" alienated her and diminished her contributions. -- For fear that Ethel Waters might be forgotten or relegated to mere footnotes, Ms. Burrell set out to rehabilitate her image.
Ms. Burrell makes it clear from the start that Ethel Waters is a survivor, that despite the many similar experiences with her contemporaries in African American blues, jazz, or gospel singing in the early 20th Century -- poverty, racism, abusive relationships, and a catalogue of common miseries that have become the stock-in-trade of several one-woman shows -- she overcomes these hurdles, using them to provide strength of will and demonstrate an innate sense of decency. -- And it doesn't hurt that Ms. Burrell engages the audience with her own spunky personality, and clearly knows how to interpret a song; she is backed up by the considerable talents of Joel Jones (keyboard) and Joe Cosgrove (bass), whose accompaniments drive each song and also serve as support for the themes and stories Ethel weaves through the two-hour production.
The play begins in the 1940s, when Ethel fears her career is over and lives in a borrowed Harlem basement apartment where she avoids phone calls from bill collectors and the tax man, and won't open a telegram because "they always bring bad news". Director Kenneth L Roberson has her recount her storied career on Felix E. Cochren's period-looking multi-leveled set that depicts the flat and a nightclub stage, but which becomes many other locations through Ethel's imagination and memory.
Ethel remembers her career and her life through "old songs that have meaning for me", so we are given insights to familiar lyrics through biographical references; and since memories aren't always experienced chronologically as she tells us, the time shifts in the play aren't either. We learn of her attachments to and admiration for her mother and grandmother, of unsuccessful marriages, of seedy clubs where she "worked from 9 p.m. to unconscious", of first being treated like a human being by the nuns in a parochial school, of being rescued by a young white nurse in Jackson, MS from life-threatening botched surgery, intertwining music and storytelling: no pity-party here, rather an honest appraisal of her life.
Sometimes rambling and occasionally over-long stories are punctuated in Act I with snippets of most of its songs, with only an emotionally slow gospel rendering of "His Eye is on the Sparrow" and a more upbeat "St. Louis Blues" given full treatment, and leaving some audience members wishing for more songs and fewer words. -- But this is all to a purpose when in Act II, a medley of "Cabin in the Sky", "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe", and her signature "Stormy Weather" were followed by "Heat Wave", "Come Up and See Me Sometime" (a tribute to her friend Sophie Tucker: the last of the red-hot mamas), and a heart breaking rendering of "Suppertime" (Irving Berlin's lament by a woman whose husband has been lynched), all serving to show the quality of Ms. Burrell's talent.
To her credit, Ms. Burrell does not try to impersonate Ethel Waters; instead -- though her singing acknowledges the legendary singer's vocal range and textured vibrato -- she gets the essence of the woman and focuses on her indomitable spirit, thus making us root for her.
So when at the end she reads the telegram offering her a role in the Hollywood film Pinky (the role that got her the Oscar nomination), her unabashed joy is a celebration we can share.