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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
In “Beulah” she became the first black actor to star in her own TV series. Black and liberal groups denounced her for playing; a servant. She was furious.
Waters, the first black actress to star on Broadway in a dramatic play, took seventeen curtain calls on opening night in January 1939. Reviews of the play were mixed, but her performance was a triumph. A Time critic wrote, “In her first dramatic role the famed singer of blues and hotcha shames the play’s bogus tear-jerking with her own deep and honest intensity.” She had realized her greatest dream, but the difficulty of playing such a physically and emotionally demanding role immediately began to take its toll on her. Untrained as an actress, she simply “lived” her part over and over, giving everything she had every night. A telling dressing-room interview with Elliott Arnold just weeks after the play opened describes her as shivering with fatigue after the final curtain. “It’s made me feel cold and numb, and I don’t feel anything any more.…We really fight onstage. I don’t know how to play-fight. We get hurt.…When I kill that man I kill him every night. And when my daughter has been hurt, it is a real Hagar and a real daughter. I don’t know what I’m doing.” After such an exhausting performance, she complained, “There’s nothing I can take for a bracer. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’m just here. I’ll go home. Tomorrow it will still be inside.”
In fact, Waters, who had vowed since childhood not to become addicted to the drugs and alcohol she had seen destroy so many lives, had found a bracer: food. As a glamorous singing star she had gone dancing in Harlem to unwind after her nightly performances and had had a strong incentive to keep up her appearance. Now, playing a woman much older than herself, she had none. Her mental and physical health began to decline steadily as she ate her way to double her normal weight after playing Hagar every night.
Still, she told an interviewer afterward, she “would be willing never to do another role, and to spend the rest of her life thanking God for giving her those fourteen months of glory.” She said: “When it was over, I just wanted to put myself away and retire. I didn’t want nothing to spoil it.” She spoke openly about her lack of desire to return to musicals. “Somehow it seems as though if I were to go back singing as I used to in musicals, I would be destroying everything I’d built up in Mamba’s Daughters,” she told The New York Times . She announced that she now hated to sing.
With no new dramatic roles on the horizon, she was lured back to the musical stage for Cabin in the Sky (1940), but only after the producers agreed to make Petunia, her role, a strong woman instead of a punching bag for her unfaithful husband, Joe. She also had made Petunia more religious and insisted that Joe have at least a few redeeming qualities to be worthy of a pious woman’s love. She loved the superb score, and her singing, though markedly less spontaneous and more actressy, still stopped the show. Because of her conspicuous weight gain, she was now unmistakably a matron rather than a romantic lead, and when the hit musical was filmed in Hollywood in 1942 and 1943, the luminously beautiful young Lena Home was brought in to add sex appeal.
Waters is still the best thing in the film when, even fat and dowdy, she takes fire during her big number, “Taking a Chance on Love,” transforming herself from the drab, long-suffering wife she played into the red-hot singer and dancer she once had been. But her Hollywood experience was a miserable one. She was angry with the way the studio treated her, and she wanted more religion in the screenplay. Feeling Lena Home was getting too much attention, she exploded with such rage on the set orte day that the two women never spoke again.
Offered a good part in a Theatre Guild production of the new play The Member of the Wedding (Carson McCullers’s adaptation of her own novel), she again stipulated that her character be re-written to be more religious. The Guild refused. To keep working, she gave a few concerts, but even critics who had always loved her work openly expressed their disappointment. “She contributed less song and more mannerism,” one wrote. Another, apparently trying to be kind, said, “Something was wrong there, last evening at least.” Most made it clear that she had embarrassed herself and them as. olumo and gray-haired, she attempted to revive the novelty songs she had performed as an ingenue.