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 ingénue 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.EndFragment