The other night I had a delightful, and surprising, theater experience in Alexandra, Virginia, one of Washington’s close suburbs. It was at Metro Stage, another sign of Greater Washington’s steadily growing theater scene. Much of this growth is taking place in the suburbs, like in the mall near my home, where you can find Silver Spring Stage.
At Metro Stage on Sunday, I saw “His Eye is on the Sparrow” by Larry Parr. It is a play, a musical, about the African-American singer Ethel Waters, a legend for her groundbreaking singing career, which included blues, musicals on Broadway, movies in Hollywood, an Oscar nomination, and election to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Ethel Waters was born in 1900 in Chester, Pennsylvania as a result of her then 13-year-old mother being raped, and she died in 1977 in California. She had a rough life but also one filled with great success. She sang with all the major music legends of the time, such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Her accompanist on piano was for many years Fletcher Henderson, the big band leader. Her most famous recordings include “Am I Blue?”, “Stormy Weather” and “Dinah,” and especially the spiritual from 1912, “His Eye is on the Sparrow”, which is also became the title of her memoirs.
The play is a story of her life and her singing career, which began in Baltimore, Maryland. She eventually moved to Harlem in New York, appeared at the famous Cotton Club and became a part of the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s. She became one of the first African-American singers ever to be recorded. That was in 1921. In 1933, she became the first black member of an all-white ensemble on Broadway in the musical “As Thousands Cheer.” In 1949, she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the film “Pinky”. At the end of her career, she often participated in Billy Graham’s crusades where she sang “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.
At Metro Stage, Ethel Waters was played by the Atlanta singer and actress Bernardine Mitchell, and she was absolutely brilliant, accompanied sensitively on piano by William Knowles. In all, it was a wonderful theater and music evening.