Black Ensemble

“I sing because I’m happy,” says a lyric in the spiritual that gave the title to Ethel Waters’s autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow. “I sing because I’m free.” On the surface it might seem that Ethel Waters was anything but happy and free. The illegitimate daughter of a teenage girl who was raped and later institutionalized for mental illness, Waters grew up with the burden of her mother’s erratic and hostile behavior–something she came to understand only in her own middle age. Racial prejudice exerted its force on Waters’s life in many areas (including having to pay for years of private care for her mother because she couldn’t find a decent hospital that would handle a black woman)–though she was one of the few performers of her time who was able to cross over to mainstream white audiences with any consistency. (She never won an Oscar, though she was nominated, and one suspects part of the reason was the movie industry’s disapproval of her insistent resistance against stereotypes. If she had won an Academy Award, I doubt that she would have thanked the voters for recognizing her as “a credit to my race,” as Gone With the Wind’s Hattie McDaniel did.)

There were also man problems, starting with Waters’s marriage as a young teenager to a fellow in his 20s. Her love life seems to have set a pattern of choosing men on the basis of their tendency to abusiveness and infidelity–not surprising, considering her unstable and fatherless childhood. But despite–or maybe because of–the pain imposed on her by circumstances and her own temperament, Waters achieved considerable success in her career as a vaudeville and Broadway performer in the years spanning the first and second world wars. Most people today know Waters, if at all, as the matronly maid in the movie The Member of the Wedding; but that performance was in fact a comeback for a woman known in her youth as the sassy and sexy “Sweet Mama Stringbean” who shimmied her way through the “Heebie Jeebies” and later crooned the classic love song “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe.”

Most important, Waters did what she did on her own terms–which is why actress-writer Jackie Taylor has chosen Waters as the subject of her new show, Sweet Mama Stringbean. As part of an ongoing effort to promote greater awareness of black achievement, Taylor’s Black Ensemble has previously dramatized the lives of Muddy Waters and Otis Redding in musical plays authored by Taylor and the fine drummer Jimmy Tillman; now, Taylor and musical director Tillman have turned to Waters’s autobiography as the source of a vehicle for Taylor herself.

The key to Waters’s success seems to have been her identification with the song quoted above. “I sing because I’m happy,” the lyrics say; more to the point, Waters felt happy, and free, when she sang. It’s the mark of all great singers, black or white (and it’s the reason show-business history is filled with so many singers who led miserable private lives–their need to escape the demons instilled in them during childhood fueled the passion that made them great onstage).

I say all this because the greatest weakness in Taylor’s show is also its most intriguing point: the way Taylor, playing the elderly Waters recounting her life, avoids much detail as she discusses her personal torments. I haven’t read Waters’s book, so I don’t know how much more specific she gets than Taylor does when discussing, for instance, her romantic problems. In Taylor’s show, the references in this area are fleeting and inconclusive, so the various men tend to blur into one image–that of a slithering stud with a toothy, egotistical grin. The conflict with her mother is clearer only, it seems, because she had only one of those; here, too, the brisk way this matter is handled leaves the story frustratingly unclear. One wants to know more; but the point that emerges, whether or not Taylor intended it to, is that Waters herself didn’t want to go into her personal problems much. She’d rather sing.

And sing she does. Though Taylor’s vocal power is limited, she’s an excellent actress with insight into the words of a song. And in this role she has a good handle on the overtly emotional, declamatory style of Waters’s time. The only singer today who seems intent on keeping that tradition alive is Bette Midler, who often has acknowledged Sophie Tucker as her inspiration. As Taylor’s Waters notes with disingenuous casualness, Tucker “wanted to copy my style. She couldn’t get it, though.”

In the hallowed tradition of show-biz bios, Taylor uses Waters’s repertoire to express her response to her private life. A rueful comment about an unfaithful man is followed by a gritty and funny rendition of “Blues in the Night” (“My mama done tol’ me . . .”); a general statement about being at the end of her emotional and financial rope leads into a “Stormy Weather” that dispenses with the usual plastic pathos in favor of intense emotional specificity. If Taylor’s script is short on details, her acting and singing are full of them. (It helps, of course, that Waters worked with some of the best lyricists in the history of American song: Johnny Mercer, Ted Koehler, and “Yip” Harburg.)

Marlene Zuccaro’s staging of Taylor’s play is fluid and dotted with strong, though caricatured, performances by a four-person ensemble who play a variety of roles. (Gregory Vincent Puckett, as the all-purpose man in Waters’s life, proves himself a strong stage presence and an articulate, athletic dancer in Bobby Andrews’s bubbling vaudevillian choreography.) For extra measure, there’s a cameo performance by singer Audrey “Queen” Roy as Bessie Smith, with whom the younger Waters found herself competing. Taylor nicely captures the mixture of embarrassment, awe, and impatience inherent in the timeless, oft-repeated situation of a rising star clashing with the role model she admires.

The four-man band is solidly grounded by Tillman’s drumming, and pianist-arranger Thomas Washington “99” has done good work in both his capacities. But Tillman, credited as musical director, had better rehearse the cast in their vocal harmonies; they were painfully off at the show I saw. Rick Paul’s set–more colorful and imaginative than Paul Brin’s pedestrian lighting would have us know–features a cartoonlike collection of billboards and marquees rising behind an all-purpose dressing room from which Waters regales us with the tale of her rise and fall and comeback. The show-bizzy setting is appropriate; after all the references to personal crises with her mother and her men, the real theme of this show is Waters’s professional ambition and accomplishments.