Terry Burrell as Ethel Waters in “Ethel” (Photo by Greg Mooney)

By Manning Harris

Alliance Theatre is currently presenting “Ethel,” a one-woman tribute to Ethel Waters; it is an evening of songs, reminiscences, and monologues conceived, written and performed by Terry Burrell. The buzz is already so enthusiastic that the show has been extended twice, running through May 1, on the Hertz Stage.

“Ethel” is a personal triumph for Ms. Burrell, but she would be quick to say that “This is Ethel’s show; Ethel is the star here, and I’m just the storyteller”; in fact, she says as much in Julie Bookman’s article in the theatre program.
Nevertheless, the idea of “Ethel” has been percolating in Terry Burrell’s mind for many years; and with the unwavering support of Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth, the show has become a reality.

Depending on your age and entertainment predilections, you may or may not be familiar with Ethel Waters. I think it’s safe to say that she was the first African-American cross-over artist in American show business; she was a singer, vaudevillian, night club performer, and star of Broadway, movies, and television.

If you’re a person of a certain age, you may remember her as TV’s “Beulah” in the early 1950’s, the “golden age” of television. Or perhaps you remember her unforgettable performance in Carson McCullers’ 1952 film “The Member of the Wedding,” with Julie Harris. If so, you may quite naturally have a grandmotherly image of Ethel Waters.

But the actress’ career covered decades, starting with her first professional performance at age 17 in Baltimore, where she debuted W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” A young Diana Ross once introduced Ethel Waters on The Hollywood Palace as “a show business legend come to life.” Indeed she was.

We first meet Ethel in her Harlem apartment in 1949; the phone is ringing, and as she picks it up and slams the receiver down, she confides to the audience that’s it’s another pesky bill collector. Her career definitely had its ups and downs, and Ms. Burrell delights in showing us Ethel’s feistiness and resilience, as well as her wit. Ethel Waters was a complicated woman who defies categorization.

And the music! Most of all Ms. Burrell excels in revealing Ethel’s joy in performing, and Ms. Burrell’s own inner sparkle endears her to the audience. She’s a fine singer, and she uses song as a poet uses verse—as an intensification of emotion. Her musicians are Scott Glazer on the upright bass and Tyrone Jackson on piano. These two appear on stage, up left, with Ms. Burrell, and their presence adds much to the proceedings.

Most of the songs are legendary: “Am I Blue,” “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Dinah,” “They’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” “Stormy Weather,” “Suppertime,” and others. Ms. Burrell does not always sing the entire song, but she does an expert job of sprinkling patter and music. She is quite irresistible.

There is an intermission, which I don’t think is truly necessary; following the old show business maxim to always “leave your audience wanting more,” the evening could have been just a tad shorter. There’s not a lot of dramatic tension. On the other hand, I don’t know what numbers I’d leave out!

Ultimately, “Ethel” is a celebration of a glorious life force who overcame incredible odds to become an international star. Ms. Burrell is quoted as saying that Ethel did not want to be forgotten; I feel certain she’s smiling on this show, which was created and is performed by another life force named Terry Burrell, radiant and smiling on the inside.

For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.