Ethel Waters achieved fame on the vaudeville circuit before becoming a chart-topping singer, a Broadway headliner in the 1930s and 1940s, the second black actress ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, and the first to be nominated for an Emmy. But as she grew older, the roles—and subsequently her legacy—dwindled. It’s a continued fact of life for women in show business, and one to which Atlanta actress Terry Burrell can relate.
“The offers don’t come as fast and as furious as they do when you’re young and dewy!” says Burrell, who doesn’t like to reveal her age but admits she’s past 50. “Here was an incredible performer who was in danger of being forgotten.” It’s the reason Burrell first began writing Ethel, a one-woman show based on Waters’s life.
Ten years ago, while touring with the Harlem Renaissance song-and-dance revue Bubbling Brown Sugar, Burrell got to know fellow castmate Charles “Honi” Coles, who once worked with Waters. She interviewed him at length, along with Waters’s protégé, 72-year-old Broadway actress Leslie Uggams. But the first-time playwright still wasn’t pleased with an early draft until her old Broadway pal Loretta Devine dropped by and urged Burrell to read it to her.
“The script stunk to high heaven, and I knew it,” says Burrell. “But Loretta just sat there and said, ‘Read me some more.’ It hit me that the angle the play needed was that [same] conversational tone that exists between trusted friends.”
With the audience playing the role of Waters’s confidante, Burrell premiered the material during a 2012 run at Philadephia’s Walnut Street Theatre. After the success of last year’s Bessie, the HBO film starring Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith, Burrell hopes to shine a similar spotlight on Waters for a new generation. “Bessie and the women of that era had this big gutbucket sound,” she explains. “But Ethel was smoother. She was the Diana Ross of her time. My voice is very similar. I’m never gonna sound like Aretha Franklin.”
Burrell also found Waters’s determination inspiring. “From the time of her birth, there was almost no way that Ethel was ever going to have a chance in life. At the end of this show, you realize, ‘If Ethel can do it, so can I.’”
On the calendar: Ethel runs March 25 through April 17 at the Alliance.
This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.