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The Mother Of Us All
Ethel Waters was an innovative and terrifically influential singer, and she broke through racial barriers in movies, theater, nightclubs, radio, film, and television, opening doors for everyone who came after her. She deserves to be much better remembered.
February/March 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 1
It was a propitious time for him to discover her. After witnessing with some jealousy the Gershwins’ huge critical and financial success with their Pulitzer Prize-winning political satire Of Thee I Sing , Berlin, always a shrewd businessman, decided that simple song-dance-chorus-girl shows were going out of style, to be replaced by topical shows with more bite to them. With the playwright Moss Hart he conceived As Thousands Cheer , a revue based on newspaper headlines. To put himself in the vanguard, he would include not only satirical numbers on events and personages of the day but also a somber song staged in front of a blowup of the headline UNKNOWN NEGRO LYNCHED BY FRENZIED MOB. “Supper Time” was the quiet lament of the wife of the victim as she ponders how to break the news to her children. Waters was the ideal, in fact the only possible, singer for such a song, for only she possessed the combination of artistry and intellect needed to give a powerful yet understated interpretation of a number that was sure to provoke controversy.
The black filmmaker Gene Davis points out that Waters “was the first black singer Jewish songwriters of the day were confident of in terms of sophisticated material.” Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb, the stars of As Thousands Cheer , wanted “Supper Time” dropped, since they had to follow it with the kind of lightweight number audiences expected of them. The producer, Sam Harris, insisted that it stay in. As Waters performed the song, she drew for inspiration on her memory of an incident during a vaudeville tour in Macon, Georgia, when she had met the family of a black teen-ager who had been hanged for talking back to a white man.
With the song “Supper Time” and the three others Berlin gave her—“Harlem on My Mind,” “Heat Wave,” and “To Be or Not to Be”—Waters stole the show, which was a smash hit. A few months later she became the highestpaid female performer on the Great White Way. When the show went on the road, she became the first black to be given equal billing with white stars south of the MasonDixon line.
During the run of the show Waters, who had contributed to various Catholic charities ever since she’d had money to spare, responded to an appeal from St. Theresa’s Monastery in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The mother superior wrote to thank her, and they began a correspondence. Waters visited the Carmelite retreat for spiritual counseling and found great comfort there. Separated from her second husband, she was turning increasingly to religion. An interview conducted by Earl Wilson for The New York Times describes her ten-room penthouse suite in one of the 115th Street apartment buildings she then owned. One of the rooms was a religious shrine, its walls covered with religious images and other objects. She told Wilson she preferred to worship in private rather than attend church. She had long kept a crucifix in every backstage dressing room. Theater was her other passion, and she went as often as possible, always purchasing a single seat in the last row of the orchestra to avoid unpleasant stares from racist patrons. In 1935 she starred in another hit revue, but she found herself yearning for a role that would enable her to establish herself as a serious actress.
She met Dorothy Heyward at a party and urged her to work with her husband, DuBose, on a dramatization of a novel of his she’d loved, Mamba’s Daughters . (The Heywards were then enjoying the success of Porgy , their dramatization of another of DuBose’s novels). Waters felt Mamba’s Daughters was a much more accurate depiction of black life than Porgy was, and she was fascinated by the fictional family’s close resemblance to her own. Some time later a script arrived in the mail, and Waters became determined to play the role of Hagar, a hardworking, stoic grandmother much like hers. The Hey wards struggled to find backing for a Broadway production, and Waters agreed not to take on any long-term commitments so that she could start rehearsals at a moment’s notice. She turned down a highly paid moviehouse-tour contract and made what seemed like a suicidal career move, booking herself onto the black vaudeville circuit she had graduated from years earlier. A year and a half later the Heywards still lacked backing (partly because no one wanted to take a chance on a singer in the pivotal role), and her career looked washed up. Then the famed director Guthrie McClintic agreed to take on the project, and the show was on.