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Sweet Mama Stringbean
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The elder Waters sits in her armchair, eyes closed, as the younger Waters and the ensemble — Cjay Hardy Philip, Gary E. Vincent and Darryl Jovan Williams, who play the various people in Waters' life — sing many of her best known songs: "Am I Blue," "Shake That Thing," "Saint Louis Blues." Occasionally the elder Walters enters the action to protest, explain or, at the best moments, join in song.
Looking back at her life, Waters tries to figure out what happened to the God-fearing girl who once sought to be saved by Jesus. After a while it becomes apparent that she can only find he way home by resolving the problems in her relationship with her mother, the woman who raised her but did not seem capable of loving her.
Turner and director Elizabeth Van Dyke do not let the story slip into maudlin sentimentality, something which could all too easily happen in less capable hands. Waters is seen with all her virtues and her vices. By the time she reached middle age she was known as "one of the meanest people in the business." Forty-seven and "holding on to weight like it had no place to go," Waters was thrown into a jealous rage by Lena Horn's "bright skin and Nordic features" during the filming of Cabin in the Sky. She was equally resentful of the dynamic Josephine Baker. Both instances are documented with compassion and humor in Sweet Mama Stringbean.
At times, Van Dyke uses video clips and recorded music to give the show something of a documentary quality, but never at the expense of sheer entertainment. Some of the best numbers are sung to Williams' rock-the-house piano music. Williams is also particularly fine when playing one of the female singers in the Hills Sisters act. Vincent is a superb dancer whose body seems to be supported by something much more flexible than bones. And Philip is especially moving as Waters ill and grieving mother. But the show really belongs to the incomparable Sandra Reaves-Phillips whose rich, powerful voice overwhelms in songs like "Stormy Weather" and the glorious "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."
Sweet Mama Stringbean is a marvelous lesson on what can be done on stage without a big budget but with lots of fresh talent combined with the awesome ability of veterans. It is a rare treat, every bit as stirring as Ethel Waters' life.
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