Actress finds intrigue in the life of Ethel Waters


She was tal­en­ted and saucy. She was a little girl who grew up in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances in Chester, Pa., in the early 1900s and went on to be­come a star.

Her name was Eth­el Wa­ters, and today, Broad­way’s Terry Bur­rell has writ­ten and stars in her play Eth­el, at the Wal­nut Street Theat­er’s In­de­pend­ence Stu­dio on 3 through March 11.

Bur­rell, who first ap­peared at the Wal­nut in the pre-Broad­way try­out of Eu­bie in 1978, and on Broad­way in such pro­duc­tions as Three Penny Op­era, In­to The Woods, Dream­girls and oth­ers, said that when it came to writ­ing Eth­el, she simply had no choice.

“I first star­ted do­ing the re­search about twenty years ago when I was look­ing for something to de­vel­op. I knew I needed to pro­duce something of my very own,” Bur­rell ex­plained. “My friends en­cour­aged me to work on this piece be­cause they felt Eth­el Wa­ters was in danger of be­ing for­got­ten.”

Bur­rell’s re­search un­covered a wo­man who was the product of rape, re­jec­ted by her moth­er and raised in poverty by her grand­moth­er. She was a wo­man who learned to use col­or­ful lan­guage, rough men and good old Amer­ic­an street skills to work her way in­to a ca­reer that led to hit re­cords, Broad­way shows, and even an Academy Award nom­in­a­tion — just the second Afric­an-Amer­ic­an act­ress ever nom­in­ated.

“And the more re­search I did, the more I be­came in­ter­ested in her life,” said Bur­rell, who keeps her age a secret. “I was es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in the mu­sic she sang, which was the same mu­sic I grew up singing — the great songs of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.”

Some of those songs, rep­res­en­ted in Bur­rell’s play, in­clude such clas­sics as Di­nah, Hee­bie Jee­bies, Tak­ing a Chance on Love and Stormy Weath­er.

Eth­el cel­eb­rates the life of a strong, no-non­sense, self-made wo­man. She had a real pas­sion for what she did. She earned her liv­ing in the world by ful­filling her pas­sion. And that is what I as­pire to,” said the au­thor and star.

Ini­tially, Bur­rell said, she hoped to do the re­search and then find someone else to write her play. But when that didn’t work out, Bur­rell de­cided a little over a year ago to write the piece her­self. And the end product can now be seen on the Wal­nut stage.

Grow­ing up in Queens, New York, Bur­rell said she al­ways wanted to be­come a per­former, es­pe­cially lov­ing all the at­ten­tion she got as a young­ster for the way she sang.

“By the time I got to high school and star­ted ap­pear­ing in school mu­sic­als, the first one be­ing West Side Story, I knew per­form­ing was all I really wanted to do,” she re­membered.

She got her first big pro­fes­sion­al break in Bub­blin’ Brown Sug­ar, mov­ing up from the en­semble to the ing&ea­cute;nue role to so im­press­ing the pro­du­cer of Eu­bie, that he hired her for his Broad­way pro­duc­tion.

Over the years, Bur­rell, who was born in Trin­id­ad, ap­peared as Ju­lie in Har­old Prince’s Lon­don pro­duc­tion of Show­boat, and off-Broad­way in Al­most Heav­en, And The World Goes Round and Tak­ing a Chance on Love. She also ap­peared with The Duke El­ling­ton Or­ches­tra in Venice and the Oslo Jazz Fest­iv­al. She was honored with nom­in­a­tions for Helen Hayes Awards for her work in both Queenie Pie and Show­boat.

“In do­ing Eth­el I don’t try to emu­late her voice, just the joy that you can hear in it,” Bur­rell con­cluded. “When I sing the songs and por­tray her life, I feel happy, and that’s ex­actly what I want the audi­ence to feel.” ••

For show times and tick­et in­form­a­tion, call 215-574-3550.


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