The soil of American popular music has long been watered by black gospel, which in turn was watered by the work songs and spirituals of the slavery days, and those songs were built on the rhythms and instruments of West Africa. At some point it all met the melodic structure of European folk music and the theatrical sass of Tin Pan Alley, often flattening into the minor key of international lamentation, and created a garden gumbo that was all the better for its multiple and serendipitously clashing flavors: a brash, free-flowing, restlessly transforming American stew.
Ethel Waters stirred the pot.
To people who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, Waters was a figure of elderly power and spirituality, famous as a gospel singer, particularly in the Billy Graham Crusades, and iconically for her rendition of the spiritual His Eye Is on the Sparrow, which she had famously performed in the early 1950s Broadway and movie adaptations of Carson McCullers’ novel The Member of the Wedding. For people of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, Waters was something altogether feistier and more glamorous: before she joined the sacred industry of saving souls she was one of the biggest names in show business, a pioneering black star of Broadway and the movies, a recording artist whose jumpy, elegant, playful, and sometimes heart-shattering voice spanned the worlds of the blues, jazz, vaudeville, musical theater, swing, and, yes, occasionally gospel.
It’s that budding and scrapping star of an Ethel Waters we meet, for the most part, in the musical biography His Eye Is on the Sparrow, which opened Friday night in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage in a production featuring the powerful and brooding Maiesha McQueen as Waters and – off to the side but of utmost importance – Darius Smith at an upright piano as her accompanist and musical provocateur.