His Eye Is On the Sparrow

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 13, 2017

Maiesha McQueen as Ethel Waters and Darius Smith
Maiesha McQueen as Ethel Waters and Darius Smith  

Ethyl Waters was a jazz, blues and ragtime singer who was part of the Harlem Renaissance, a performer of such affecting depth she was nominated for an Academy Award. Her life is traced in "His Eye is on the Sparrow" at the Ellyn Bye Studio at The Armory. It's the stirring story of a brutal childhood and ascendance to fame, a life marked by tragedy and determination.

Playing Waters is Maiesha McQueen, last seen in Portland in the magnificent "Ain't Misbehavin'" a few years ago. "His Eye is on the Sparrow" is a one-woman (plus onstage accompanist) show, but the play invites the unseen members of Waters' life onstage, and we are treated to an expansive and tender tour of Waters' life.

McQueen has that rare ability to hold a room full of people in the palm of her hand. With a mezzo-soprano capable of big bottom notes and delicate top notes, she is an actor of penetrating talent. This is a quiet play, emotionally intimate, tracing the painful life of a woman from childhood to a triumphant performance at Madison Square Garden.

McQueen takes us through this wrenching story with grace and talent, and obvious respect for Waters' tenacity and spirit. Her performances of "Am I Blue," "Stormy Weather" and "Cabin in the Sky" are among the most wrenching I've heard.

After she was discovered, Ethyl Waters performed all over the eastern U.S., including states inflicting segregation on people of color. Waters was threatened with physical harm for asking for one theater's piano to be tuned; in another place in the South, the lynched body of her neighbor's child was thrown into the lobby where she was performing. Stories that once would have seemed distant and ancient suddenly feel present, urgent in our country's current state, and Waters' story, even more moving as a result.

Directed by Timothy Douglas, the play is set in a single room that stands in for the shabby childhood apartment in Philadelphia, a playground, stages large and small, and a dressing room. It was confusing that the show began with Waters and her accompanist strolling out while the house lights were still on. They took their seats onstage without a word, and the accompanist began an overture of sorts, which stretched into awkwardness as the audience was left to just look at Waters sitting on the couch. The moment never resolved in the play, and I could never quite make sense of it. It might have been a nod to tent revival performers, as Water's eventual collaboration with Billy Graham brought her work and life full circle.

The best moments were when Waters was sharing her faith, first as a young Catholic school student having the rare experience of receiving kindness from a nun; and then singing the hymn "His Eye is on the Sparrow" her beloved and ailing grandmother. Finally, after she has gone through epic highs in life and harrowing lows, she comes back to God literally through the back door of the Billy Graham evangelical crusade and sings to the massive crowd assembled at Madison Square Garden. McQueen conveys Waters' exultation amid great personal pain in a moment of breathtaking beauty. McQueen's performance is raw and lavish and divine.

"His Eye is on the Sparrow" is a chance to learn about a great American singer, and to my mind even more importantly, an opportunity to experience the brilliant talent of Maiesha McQueen.

"His Eye is on the Sparrow" runs through March 19 at the Ellyn Bye Studio at the Armory, 128 NW Eleventh Ave, Portland, OR. For tickets or information, call 503-445-3700 or visit www.pcs.org/sparrow

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.