His Eye is on the Sparrow at Ensemble Theatre is Larry Parr’s one-woman musical show that follows the groundbreaking African-American performer Ethel Waters as she rises to fame from a poverty-stricken childhood in Pennsylvania. The show follows her life from an astoundingly difficult upbringing as the daughter of a 13-year-old rape victim, through her years of stardom as a singer, stage performer and film actress.
As Waters, Torie Wiggins is the only person onstage other than musical director and accompanist Scot Woolley. She delivers a strong, captivating performance and brings a lovely and soulful bluesy timbre to her singing. But the play has some forced, awkward transitions between its narrative and the songs Wiggins sings. And as full songs are performed without always being effectively set up, the audience can slip out of the story, despite its emotional monologues and heartbreaking tales.
Born in Chester, Penn. in 1896, Ethel Waters’ earliest dreams were to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and become a maid for rich white women. But married at the devastatingly young age of 13 and facing impossible circumstances, Waters had no idea how quickly and drastically her life was about to change. Sparrow details that unhappy marriage and her escape from it, as well as her poverty, which was so extreme she often stole bread and milk. But once gone, she slowly built a great career in the arts — as a Blues singer in the 1920s and as a successful vocalist in Jazz, Pop and Gospel. (“His Eye Is On the Sparrow” is a Gospel classic.)
Also a distinguished actor, she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the 1949 drama Pinky, the second African-American woman ever nominated in that category. And she was the first black woman to fully integrate into Broadway shows — musical and plays, alike.
His Eye is on the Sparrow, directed by D. Lynn Meyers, is a simple show on the surface. Warm string lights elevate the spare set and help establish the tone for each new moment. One of the most enjoyable aspects are the projected historical images provided by set and lighting designer Brian c. Mehring. They help the audience visualize the places Waters inhabits at each new phase of her life.
Outside of the lighting, the stage is mostly populated by two suitcases that carry most of the costume changes. These costumes, though not elaborate, help transform every scene into a new city, stage and song that punctuates Waters’ life and career. Though Wiggins is dressed plainly and in dull colors at the beginning of the show, each feather boa or vintage 1920s hairpiece brings a pop of color that complements Wiggins’ vivacious energy as she croons to some of Waters’ most famous songs.
Wiggins’ performance transforms throughout the show, as we watch her grow up on stage before us. From Waters’ performances in small clubs as a young and vivacious teenager, Wiggins shines with youthful pep and innocence.
Wiggins’ effervescence shifts from young and unbridled to deeply emotional and professionally crafted as she becomes an established act at now-famous clubs in Harlem like the Cotton Club. This journey, laid bare on the stage, imparts the sheer magnificence of Waters’ life and talents.
His Eye is on the Sparrow offers a refreshing change of pace with the opportunity to see a show in which an African-American woman is the sole star and featured performer the entire time. It is an inspirational tale of one incredible woman’s struggle to break the cycle of poverty and rise to unbelievable stardom.
His Eye is on the Sparrow is also a reminder that Ensemble has been dedicating this season to making sure its presentations offer diversity.
Waters’ story is not one that is well known — surprising given the grit, drama and total inspiration it offers. But His Eye is on the Sparrow is certainly a well-intended step to making her appreciated.
His Eye is on the Sparrow plays through May 19 at Ensemble Theatre (1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine). Tickets/more info: ensemblecincinnati.org