Two dazzling actresses and an incomparable backing band recall the life and times of the legendary African American singer and actress Ethel Waters in Agape Theatre Project’s 2019 Season Finale, Sweet Mama Stringbean: The Life and Times of Ethel Waters. Part memory play, part cabaret, the production is anchored by the illustrious talent and unmatched performance of Phyllis Morrison.
Morrison and April “Storm” Perry, who portrays a younger version of Ethel, both deliver powerhouse performances as two women at the very top of their craft. In addition to glorious near-perfect vocals, each commanded the stage and, by turns, gave charm and nuance to the character they shared. Morrison adeptly soared through Ethel’s highs, but where she really demonstrated mastery was during the emotional core performances of each act — through her rendition of Suppertime after sharing a poignant reminiscence of traveling through the Jim Crow era South in Act One and her recreation of Ethel’s role in the Broadway production Mamba’s Daughters in Act Two. Perry’s most shining moment was her infectiously exuberant portrayal of Ethel hitting the dance halls for the very first time as a teenager.
One could not review this production without giving a strong shoutout to the band, lead by Will Ellis at the piano, Jerry Smith on bass, Serena Wiley on saxophone, and Anthony Moore on drums. Remaining on stage the entire show, they supported and elevated the vocalists perfectly. During times when technical difficulties or long costume changes would have sunk a different production, this combo of musicians adeptly kept the show on track, and the audience entertained.
As strong as the performances were, other elements of the production struggled to keep up. Technical hiccups with lighting and sound equipment were a distraction but didn’t seem to dampen the audience’s enthusiasm. Multiple costume changes that felt unnecessary made for painfully long delays while leaving Morrison to fend for herself behind a screen to do full, complex changes that often meant shoulder pads were left hanging out or fringe remained tucked into an undergarment. A hodgepodge of furniture pieces lacked a sense of time, place, or purpose. While director Kenneth Hinton, Sr.’s passion for the play shone through, his staging choices didn’t always serve the performances, having Morrison facing upstage at the bandleader or down at a stuffed bear for many of her pivotal moments, putting the audience on the outside desperate to bask in Ethel’s glow. The use of Young Ethel in the storytelling was inconsistent, and many opportunities to use her were squandered.
These issues aside, the strikingly memorable performances in The Agape Theatre Project’s production of Sweet Mama Stringbean are worth way more than the price of admission and are where the audience’s attention and enthusiasm should be directed.
Sweet Mama Stringbean: The Life and Times of Ethel Waters runs through September 20th at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham. For more information visit: https://www.agapetheatreproject.com/.