Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow

The scary truth about Ethel Waters and the singer who portrays her!

By Andrew Andrews

Jannie Jones stars in Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow, opening Capital Rep’s new venue in Albany. Original photos by Doug Liebig.

In the early twentieth century, Ethel Waters rose from an impoverished childhood to international fame.

Born the “bastard” daughter of a twelve-year-old mother, Waters became a vaudeville singer, joined the carnival, and worked her way into nightclubs from Atlanta to New York before landing recording contracts and movie roles.

Eventually, she became the highest paid performer on Broadway and the first “colored woman” to star in her own television show.

Jannie Jones brings Waters’ autobiography with Larry Parr, His Eye is on the Sparrow, to theREP’s new theater in Albany, after premiering and reviving the production in Florida.

For about an hour and a half, Waters tells us the story of her difficult upbringing, failed relationships and rise to stardom, eventually labeling herself a racist before joining the Billy Graham Crusade.

Throughout the monologue, which is full of split-second costume changes and anecdotes that range from uplifting to heart-wrenching, Waters breaks out into song, sampling what attracted so many audiences to the performer in her heyday.

Josh D. Smith accompanies Jones on piano.

Ethel Waters’ rags-to-riches story is as inspirational as they come, and Jones’s delivery is engaging from start to finish.

Compared to the upbeat personality that Waters presented in interviews that survive her, Jones depicts the entertainer as a more serious character, which I believe helps the audience better appreciate her tribulations and the strength it took to overcome them.

Likewise, whereas Waters’ “soft and subtle” musical style is generally fun to listen to, Jones takes a more earnest stab at injecting emotion into the numbers. Her rendition of His Eye is on the Sparrow early in the show sent chills down my spine, and her closing execution of Black and Blue brought a tear to my eye. A few numbers in-between, however, were performed with noticeably less enthusiasm.

Although I enjoyed this production as-is, I think I would have liked it much more if it wasn’t essentially a one-woman show. With only Josh D. Smith supporting on piano, the monologue became—well, monotonous at times—and seeing some of the scenes acted out instead of simply recalled would do wonders for the piece.

Capital Rep’s beautiful new theatre seems to have been designed by someone who never attends live performances, as only about a third of the seats surrounding the wide, shallow, rectangular thrust stage get a decent view of the whole show. If I had stayed in my original seat on the aisle instead of shifting to an empty spot further in, I would be rating this performance much lower, due to the certain strain on my neck from turning my head sideways for ninety minutes just to watch it.

Instead, I’ll simply warn you to select seats numbered between 110 and 120 when you purchase tickets, to avoid the need to visit a chiropractor after attending this (or any production) at 251 North Pearl Street.

4

Andrew Andrews attended Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany on Saturday, August 28, 2021 @ 3:00pm to write this review.