If you enjoy great singing, riveting storytelling, true-to-life acting, music from a concert-quality jazz/blues band, and/or the well-told story of the life and times of a fascinating performer, the Agape Theatre Project has just the ticket for you as they close their season on a high note with Valjean Limar Jansen’s Sweet Mama Stringbean: The Life & Times of Ethel Waters.
Directed by Kenneth E. Hinton, this production stars Phyllis (Pia) Morrison as the incomparable singer and actress Ethel Waters (1896-1977), who presents her story to the audience by means of narration, song, and performance. The show also stars April “Storm” Perry as “Younger Ethel,” who appears in key spots to sing, dance, and perform poignant moments of Waters’ life.
The venue — Durham, NC’s Hayti Heritage Center (101 Fayetteville Rd.) — is well-suited for this show. The acoustics are excellent for the clear dynamic voices of Pia Morrison and Storm Perry, as well as for the quartet that backs them up, and the “house-of-worship” nature of the space engenders a properly reverent attitude toward the process of delving into the life of this larger-than-life singer/actor (and for glimpsing into her soul). This is a celebration of Ethel Waters’ life and a celebration of her music — the blues, “the very soul of [her] people.”
Through Pia Morrison, Waters speaks directly to the audience about her origins (origins that we recognize to have been disadvantaged and poverty-stricken), about the obstacles that she had to overcome, about the racial barriers of “those times,” and about the setbacks that she endured.
But she never complains. She is upbeat all-the-way as she tells about such humorous episodes as her grandmother’s battle to defeat bedbugs (a battle that took on the importance of a “Christian mission”) and about rats in dingy hotels who “acted like they was guests of the management.” She also proceeds to tell about her first marriage (that she didn’t want) at age 13 and about being “separated and on my own” at age 14.
We learn early on about Water’s belief that it is “not enough to have dreams — you gotta fight for them.” She also tells us that “laughter is good for the soul … and even better for the digestive system than Alka-Seltzer.” And she shares with us her experience that “[S]inging came as natural as breathing to me.”
As she tells Waters’ story, Morrison is perfectly natural and in-the-moment. She makes extensive use of two key props — a teddy bear and a scrapbook — to move things forward. She also sometimes assumes the voices and postures of secondary characters in her narrative, often to great comic effect.
One priceless sequence involves both actors: As the older Waters, Morrison is sharing the story of her first night in a dance club. Meanwhile, Perry comes on stage as the very optimistic, enthusiastic, and nervous Younger Waters, wearing high-heels for the first time and proceeding to dance in public for the first time. Perry’s facial expressions are well worth the price of admission!
Another: At the end of a sequence in which Waters relates her “greatest memory” — the two actors join hands as they perform a duet. Touching!
And yet another: At one point the audience is enticed to come out of their seats and join in the song-and-dance.
Thanks to lighting designer Chris Sanders, the production makes excellent use of follow-spot lighting, most notably when simulating Waters’ live onstage performances.
Costume designer Pamela Bond has supplied a vast array of outfits for Morrison (ranging from the flashy to the elegant, to the plain-and-simple), as well as appropriate costuming for Perry.
Music director Will Ellis on piano, along with Anthony Moore on drums, Jerry Smith on bass, and Serena Wiley on tenor saxophone, serves up a musical feast to complement Morrison and Perry’s voices as they deliver many of the songs made famous by Waters, including “Stormy Weather,” “St. Louis Blues,” “My Handy Man,” “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More,” “Shake That Thing,” “Am I Blue,” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
From the Department of Picky-Picky: It would have been nice if the program had included a list of the songs (in the order in which they were sung) – perhaps, a program insert can be printed for the second weekend of performances. Also: the scenes in which an actual nightclub or concert hall performance is simulated would have been enhanced if a “period” microphone had been included as part of the set.
A must-see show, Agape Theatre Project’s Sweet Mama Stringbean: The Life & Times of Ethel Waters provides plenty of laughs and smiles along with an education about and respect for a remarkable woman. And the music — the music!
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 17th Cary, NC RDU on Stage review by Johannah Edwards: https://rduonstage.com/2019/09/17/theater-review-agape-theatre-project-production-of-sweet-mama-stringbean-delivers-top-notch-musical-performances-despite-some-technical-glitches/ and Sept. 8th podcast interview with actress Phyllis Morrison and director Kenneth E. Hinton, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/podcast/ep-36-sweet-mama-stringbean/; and Sept. 6th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/sweet-mama-stringbean-hayti-september-2019/.
The Agape Theatre Project presents SWEET MAMA STRINGBEAN: THE LIFE & TIMES OF ETHEL WATERS, starring Phyllis (Pia) Morrison, with special guest April “Storm” Perry at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19 and 20, at the Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Fayetteville St., Durham, NC 27701.
TICKETS: $20 in advance and $25 at the door.
BOX OFFICE: 919-957-9692 or https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-life-times-of-ethel-waters-tickets-65002083983.
PRESENTER: https://www.agapetheatreproject.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/ATPDurham/.
VENUE: https://hayti.org/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Hayti-Heritage-CenterSt-Josephs-Historic-Foundation-Inc/194051298375, https://twitter.com/HaytiHeritage, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Joseph%27s_African_Methodist_Episcopal_Church.
Ethel Waters (Chester, PA-born jazz and blues singer and actress, 1896-1977): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ethel-Waters (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://billygraham.org/story/ethel-waters-through-the-years/ (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/ethel-waters-64186 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0914083/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethel_Waters (Wikipedia).
Kenneth E. Hinton (Durham, NC director, artistic director of the Agape Theatre Project, adjunct instructor at North Carolina Central University, and part-time faculty member at Shaw University): https://www.agapetheatreproject.com/kenne (Agape Theatre Project bio), http://www.nccu.edu/directory/details.cfm?id=khinton (NCCU bio), https://www.shawu.edu/Faculty_Staff/Faculty_Websites_Hinton_Kenneth.aspx?id=1504 (Shaw bio), https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1676031804 (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/kehinton (Twitter page).
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.