Sweet Mama Stringbean (The Story of Ethel Waters), Black Ensemble Theater. Like the Black Ensemble Theater pieces profiling Muddy Waters and Nat King Cole, this is less show than tell, a lecture-demonstration combining a chronology of Ethel Waters’s life with selections from her repertoire. Though the story is interesting, particularly as it reveals the way black entertainers have been compelled to embody the American libido, it lacks structure: “And then I starred in…” doesn’t constitute drama.
Jackie Taylor’s exceptional performance as Waters only partly compensates for her weakness as a playwright: she narrates as well as enacts conflicts. She’s remarkable to watch, though, with an unexpected innocence that leavens the crudest comic material and makes poignant Waters’s failed attempts to please her mother, who wants nothing to do with her. Taylor, a nonsinger, does a singer’s job, and her dancing–especially in “Heebie-Jeebies”–is adorable. As Bessie Smith, Sherida Shelby nearly steals the show with a sensational blues growl, making it clear why Waters ceded that territory and focused on popular ballads like “Stormy Weather” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Musical director Jimmy Tillman elicits the usual high level of vocal performance from everyone, though as always the music is unnecessarily (and poorly) amplified.
Jackie Taylor the actress should leave Jackie Taylor the playwright behind and find a writer whose words are worthy of her interpretive powers.